What Are We Really Saying When We Talk About Millennials in 2016

megaphone-tallKate Middleton is a millennial. Born on January 9th, 1982, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge is one of the oldest among her generation (at least according to the age range established by original millennial demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe) but she still counts as a member of Generation Y. If you go by the Pew Research Center’s definition, you would have to consider Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé millennials as well.

The youngest celebrity millennials? Maisie Williams, and possibly even Willow and Jaden Smith.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but Arya Stark and Queen Bey—not to mention a future queen of England—are all part of the same demographic age group, as agreed upon by most economists, historians, and researchers. And they’re joined by about 75–80 million others, constituting the largest generation in world history.

So why do we often talk about millennials as though they’re one homogeneous heap of consumers? Depending on who you ask—or which just-released survey you read—millennials are entitled or indebted, lazy or hard-working, selfish or socialist. In lieu of being able to proclaim any substantive, universal truth about such a vast, diverse group of people, commentators of all kinds instead use the term “millennial” to basically shout, “bah, young people!” or “yay, young people!”

The reality is that, technically, many millennials are aging out of one stage of life and into parenthood, full-time careers, and home ownership—characteristics that marketers are relatively familiar with.

We think the actual question that brands face is “How to engage with an audience that’s younger than us, and has grown up in an entirely different culture?” Rather than label them “millennials,” let’s look at what consumers age 18-24 really care about. What can college-aged adults tell us about our preconceptions about the next young generation as a whole?

What Consumers Ages 18–25 Value

Discovery and Self-Expression Through Social Media

College-aged consumers are less cynical about social media and more reliant on their social networks than older millennials:

  • “84% of consumers 18-24 say online shopping behaviors are influenced by social media.” [Source: PwC]
  • “Younger people are … more likely to follow brands because they are interested in buying their products: 43% of 18-24 year olds said they do that, compared to 29% of 35-44 year olds and 27% of 45-54 year olds.” [Source: MarketingSherpa]
  • “Half of the U.S. Millennials ages 18-24 and 38% of those ages 25-34 agreed that brands ‘say something about who I am, my values and where I fit in.’” [Source: Boston Consulting Group]
  • “Nearly half (44.3%) of young Millennials age 18-24 and 33.8 percent of older Millennials age 25-34 indicate they discover new art through social media channels, compared to the largest percentage of Baby Boomers age 65+ (29.5%) who prefer a more traditional discovery path by finding new art through museums.” [Source: Invaluable]

Mobile and Virtual Technology

The youngest segments of adult consumers show the highest willingness to adopt and cherish mobile and virtual technology:

  • “In the 18-24 age group, 65% buy using their smartphones, while 63% of all shoppers age 25-34 and 58% of all 35-44-year-olds buy using those devices.” [Source: Bronto Software]
  • “96% of millennials aged 18-24 view their mobile phones as the most important part of their daily lives.” [Source: Retail Touchpoints]
  • “Younger millennials (ages 18-24) are most likely to sleep with their smartphone on the bed (34%).” [Source: Bank of America]
  • Out of all ages polled, viewers between 18–24 were the age group with the highest awareness of esports. [Source: PwC]
  • “Younger consumers are the most likely to have tested virtual reality, with 18 percent of 18-24 year olds reporting that they have already tried VR and 46 percent eager to try it.” [Source: YouVisit]

Adventure and Experience with as Little Risk as Possible

Younger consumers are more willing to take a chance on unfamiliar products and experiences than their older counterparts, but are careful to make smart purchasing decisions and avoid putting themselves or their finances in jeopardy:

  • “[Y]oung Gen Yers are more adventurous than older generations in their food choices, with 47 percent of younger versus 40 percent of older Millennials claiming to choose something new (compared to only 34 percent or less for older generations).” [Source: The NPD Group and CivicScience]
  • “Nearly half (49%) of consumers 18-24 years old say brand stories are most likely to get them interested in a travel brand.” [Source: Headstream]
  • “[B]arely half of today’s college students ages 18 to 24 have a credit card, compared with nearly nine in 10 who say they use a debit card.” [Source: Sallie Mae]

What Young People Value

So what values do young consumers have in common?

Authenticity: Millennials and the generation behind them consistently show a preference for brands, choices, and marketing strategies they perceive as “authentic.” Millennials are much more likely to trust experts and influencers over advertisements, and rank authenticity higher than actual content when consuming news. Four-quarters of millennials prefer to spend money on experiences rather than things, and more than half plan to increase their experience spending.

Giving back: These young demographics  are a highly philanthropic generation, and are heavily invested in social and environmental change. More than 80% have donated money, food, goods, or services to a cause they care about. Six out of ten believe businesses should make it easier for consumers to get involved in the issues, while eight in ten expect a business to be commit to positive social and environmental change. A substantial number have said they would pay more for a product or service if doing so helped a cause they believed in.

We’ve witnessed this behavior firsthand in our work with the Willamette Week Give!Guide. Year after year, as young consumers have grown in purchasing power, we’ve watched Give!Guide donations steadily increase, and donors under 35 comprise a large segment of the annual audience.

Health: Millennials value their health and well-being, or at the very least like to appear as though they do. They own more connected health devices, exercise more, and spend more on athletic wear than their parents and grandparents. They are also more willing to pay a premium for foods they consider healthy. As a result, the organic and natural food and beverage market has exploded over the last few years, and chains from Kroger to Whole Foods are altering their approaches to better target millennials.

We’ll continue to address this topic on our blog. Until next time, if you’re eager for further millennial myth-busting, you might be interested in attending the 2016 Gallup Summit next week.

Here are a few more links on the topic, in case you want to dig in further.
1. Meaghan Moraes (2015).  8 Modern Tips for Marketing to Millennials  HubSpot

2. Elite Daily (2015). Millennial Consumer Trends Amazon News
4. Walden University (2011).  Social Change Impact Report Walden University
6. Millennial Marketing (2016). Who Are Millennials Millennial Marketing
7. Staff Writer (2016). Parks Associates HIT Consultant
8. BrightMark (2015). Why Millennials are Fitness Fanatics: The Social Nature BrightMark Consulting
Post Date
May 6, 2016
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