Millennials (ugh) and what we can’t learn from them

Olly Robinson
LDN - 29 Jan 2016
Olly Robinson
Millennials (ugh) and what we can’t learn from them

Researchers, marketers, and basically anyone with a passing interest in innovation: we all have one thing in common. When we need to understand how things are changing, we ask the nearest young person. Young people *know* things.

Despite their haircuts, and their linguistic tics, and their increasingly ridiculous generational titles, they have always constituted a wealth of information about where the rest of us are headed.

They’re almost always quicker to pick up new technologies — pioneering new behaviours rather than grudgingly adapting to them — and they’re attitudinally more forward-looking, less constrained by the social norms of their predecessors.

I should know, because…da da daaaaaaaaaaa, I used to be one. If anyone had been studiously observing the hours I spent with the family PC as a teenager, plugged in to MSN Messenger, they could probably have pieced together the underlying needs and use-cases (spoiler: some of them weren’t pretty) that later gave rise to Facebook, WhatsApp and the rest. So opportunity identification must be easy, right? Trap a few young people, ask them a load of stuff about how they live their life, profit?

Not so much.

Let’s take a moment to think about current young people: the hideously branded “Millennials”. If we took everything your average Millennial said and did at face value, we’d end up designing products and services for the sort of people you find in infographics about Millennials. That is, intransigent and self-involved jerks. Contrary to the vast body of evidence (or at least, most of the thought-pieces and infographics) not everyone born between 1980 and 2000 is an intransigent, self-involved jerk. Some of them aren’t even jerks.

Those Millennials are archetypes: designed to try and reflect the essence of an entire generation. Unsurprisingly, not many of them succeed. The uniformity of the Millennial cohort, such as it is, comes from a single fact: their date of birth. Both now and in the future, this manifests itself in two ways: a shared lifestage, and a common experience of previous lifestages. We might simplify this to:

1. Their life right now
2. Their life before now

So what does all this mean for opportunity identification? Well, studiously observing young people might provide us with a load of information about their behaviours, and if we can bring ourselves to talk to them we might even learn something about their attitudes.

Between their behaviours and their attitudes, we should be able to piece together some opportunities for new products and services.

However: what we won’t know, is which of these behaviours and attitudes are intrinsic to their current lifestage (their life right now), and which are a product of their shared generational experience (their life before now).

It might not be immediately apparent, but in the longer term this is an important distinction. Are you developing a product for a Millennial, or an 18–34 year old?

If it’s the former, don’t be surprised when their lifestage (and therefore their needs) change pretty drastically over the next few years

If it’s the latter, don’t be surprised when the next generational cohort turns up with drastically different shared values and attitudes

All of which isn’t to say that there isn’t a load of stuff we can learn from studying Millennials. Far be it from me to talk you out of lucrative market research programmes involving them (if nothing else, it keeps them off the streets).

The trick is untangling the insight about their lifestage from the insight about their generation, and making any long term assumptions about your product / market fit and customer relationships accordingly.

If you can manage that, you’re halfway to knowing the future.