Are Millennials Really That Different?

Financial marketers act as if Gen-Y is an alien species. “How do we define these people? What do they desire? What makes them tick?” Marketers obsess over buzzwords like “authenticity,” “transparency” and other terms du jour because Gen-Y admires Shaun White for being “true to himself.”

Shaun White, the global Olympic snowboarding/skateboarding superstar, may be a new phenomenon unique to Gen-Y, but the concept of brand authenticity is not. No one (at any age) likes a phony. Gen-X loved skateboarding sensation Christian Hosoi because he was authentic. Boomers admired Jimi Hendrix and The Doors because they were authentic. What makes Gen-Y any different?

Key Question: Isn’t Gen-Y driven by the same things that preoccupied generations 10 years ago, 30 years ago, and maybe even 300 years ago?

Gen-Y loves Shaun White because their parents can’t claim him. Kids are always looking for cultural symbols they can own that their parents can’t. Kids love rebelling against established authority symbols — especially their parents. They are itching to say, “You just don’t get it! You don’t understand! You don’t know what I’m going through!”

This craving for independence and self-expression among young people is timeless. Haven’t kids always bought brands their parents don’t, brands they think other kids think are cool? So how do they determine what’s cool today? What trends are unique to them?

Marketers love asking Gen-Y about their favorite brands. Unfortunately, answers like “Google,” “Pepsi,” “Nike” and “Apple” don’t help decipher the mysteries of Gen-Y because basically everyone loves these brands and usually for the same reasons. Multi-generational brands like Apple and Nike stay relevant through style and innovation, while other pre-Gen-Y brands like American Apparel reinvent themselves to remain uniquely chic and possess youthful appeal (translation: sex). But to truly understand the differences between Gen-Y and other generations, you have to look at the brands unique to them: LRG, Urban Outfitters, Juicy Couture, Victoria’s Secret Pink. How do these youth-culture brands build cache?

Everyone at any age wants to be more desirable. Young women have always struggled to meet an often unattainable definition of beauty, usually because they want to be pursued, loved and treated special. Guys have egos; they need to be respected and they feel the need to conquer. They want to be more tough and successful because that’s what they think women want. How specifically are these themes playing out in the lives of Gen-Y?

Idealism is endemic to the young. It’s a time of life when everyone feels charged with optimism and the empowerment of an “I-can-change-the-world” attitude. More than 30 years ago, Boomers were out to change the world with the Peace-, Hippie-, Free-Love and Equal Rights movements. (Gen-X, it would seem, was never really concerned about anything more than Pearl Jam or Kurt Cobain.) Today, kids choose to do business with environmentally- and socially- responsible companies. But what are the specific causes de celeb igniting Gen-Y’s passions?

For discussion and reflection

How has “being young” changed? How is it different to be Millennial? Besides different technologies and the ever-increasing pace of life, what really changes between one generation and the next? Certainly there are things Gen-Y deals with that no other generation has seen before: sexting, cyberbullies, meth addiction, Facebook, etc. But are the issues really any different? Haven’t young people always pushed the limits of flirtation? Haven’t there always been problems with drugs, peer pressure and bullies? So what’s different?

Thirty years ago, only jocks and cheerleaders were popular and everyone else fell into the “uncool” group. These days, kids can be cool within a much wider range of groups, including those that were once regarded as outcasts and freaks — Goths, punks and skateboarders for instance.

What are the other ways in which Millenials are different than other people who were once their age? How is the anything-anytime-anywhere internet age changing Gen-Y? What are the other forces unique to Gen-Y that shape and influence who they are and the decisions they make?

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