Understanding Millennials

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Understanding Millennials

Words by Mr Oli Beale

21 January 2016

What’s wrong with kids today, eh? Scarily, maybe nothing. Here’s how to engage with Generation Y.

Who are millennials? For me, they are simply the generation that came after mine. I’m in my late thirties, so I grew up without the internet and I’ve watched in wonder as the world has changed around me. They grew up with the internet and, as a result, they want to eat my soul. Or so it seems.

Why does this matter? I have chosen to work in an industry – namely, advertising – where not engaging with this younger generation will put me out of business. According to a Forbes article in January 2015, the spending power of millennials in the US is in the region of $200bn. They’re basically a fifth of all people. What’s more, with their phones and social media profiles and exhausting content-guzzling habits, they’re both well-informed (authoritative) and well-connected (influential). Even on other generations. I see advertising agencies pumping millions of dollars into TV adverts that their audience – millennials – will never watch, and probably never even see, because they want to make the sort of sell-heavy, patently manufactured adverts they watched as kids. Millennials hate adverts, almost as much as they like emojis. And we need to understand that, but it’s hard. I have to fight those urges myself.

Of course, this isn’t, strictly speaking, an entirely new problem. In fact, it’s a recurring feature of history. Think back to the 1950s when Elvis first appeared on TV. There was a man… making sex faces… in your great grandparents’ living room. They knew that this was wrong. In the same way, I know that selfie culture is wrong. I know that it’s wrong to take photos of your face in order to seek validation from strangers about your physical appearance. But does that make it so? If you want to be successful in a business that involves managing or communicating to Generation Y, you need to do everything you can to not be your great grandparents. I can’t imagine what the equivalent of Elvis is now – a holographic, motion-controlled phallus emanating from your kids’ Wii U, perhaps – but whatever it is, you need to be the sort of person who sees it and says, “I’m Periscoping this!”, while raising a glass of bright blue energy drink to toast progress.

To get there, you’ll need to demolish a few dearly held beliefs. I’ve outlined some key examples below. Overcome these mental obstacles and you’ll be one step closer to understanding why DJ Khaled is the high priest of Snapchat and dinner isn’t dinner unless you first jump on a chair and Instagram it.

01. Everything was special back in the day, especially music

This is a classic. I often hear things like this: “I remember that we would all listen to the radio in the hope of hearing this new song so we could tape it. I’d go to the record shop and order the CD, then wait for it to come. When I got it home, I’d listen to it over and over, writing down the words until I knew them all. I’d take the CD to parties and lend it to people until it was too scratched to listen to.”

It’s really hard not to agree with all that. It sounds wonderful. But you have to remove the ball and chain of nostalgia and look at it through the eyes of Gen Why.

“Why wait to hear it on the radio when you can search for it on YouTube? Why buy a CD in a shop when you can stream it for free instantly? Why write the lyrics down? Google them. Why not just send your mates a link to it if you want them to hear it? Why pay for something that scratches and takes up shelf space?”

We now live in an age where, if something doesn’t work perfectly for the consumer, then somebody will invent a solution. Nostalgia will make you blind to this. It’s nostalgia that caused the record industry to be beaten by the tech companies – twice – with downloads and then streaming. It’s nostalgia that will make you miss moments of genius from millennials.

02. People are constantly glued to their phones these days

This is a tough one to get out of your system: “surely people aren’t experiencing real life any more”. You must rise above this view. There was a generation of people who were horrified by video games. When I was nine, my friend Nathan Potter’s mother made him play Mario wearing an eye patch because she read that it was the only way to stop seizures. (True story.) You must not turn into Potter’s mum. There was a generation of people who thought TV would rot our brains. They wrote articles about our attention spans getting shorter and our stress levels getting higher; meanwhile, the next generation were making video games into works of art such as Ori And The Blind Forest and creating TV shows such as Making A Murderer that would blow our minds. There is a generation out there that isn’t worrying about whether or not people are burying their heads in their phones. They are making things on the phones worth burying your head in. Join them.

03. Everyone is so fake on social media

I grew up trying to look like Mr Kurt Cobain. Yes, I did everything in my power to look like a heroin addict from Seattle when, in fact, I was a granola addict from Guildford. I carried a skateboard around the town centre on a Saturday, praying that nobody would ask me to show them a trick. In my last year at school, I listened to acid house and dressed like a raver without ever having been to a club. At university, all I wanted was to be dressed head to toe in Maharishi, but I could only afford one shirt and one pair of trousers, so I wore them everywhere, as if my whole wardrobe was full of it. For many years, my only form of communication was the family telephone and my conversations where odysseys of banality. I’d share my grandiose thoughts on albums, friends’ haircuts, what I had for dinner... I was over-sharing to anybody who’d listen. Imagine how much I would have over-shared if everybody were listening. Social media isn’t the problem – humans are.

04. Kids are obsessed with being famous

Yes, that is true. But that’s because being famous these days is much more achievable. There was a time when famous people were freaks or gods – untouchable, mysterious characters living in mansions with monkeys and allegations of nefarious activity. Now the most famous person online is a Swedish guy who plays computer games in his bedroom. Seriously. Our TV channels are full of “real” people being famous simply by being enthusiastic. We live in a world where there are reality shows about celebrities made famous through being on reality shows. We’re reaching Inception levels of reality where nobody remembers where celebrities came from or indeed whether or not they might be a celebrity themselves. My parents always brought me up to believe I could do anything I wanted, regardless of whether or not I had any natural ability. Surely that’s the best possible environment to grow up in. So isn’t it great that there is a generation that is being taught that by culture?

05. Patience is a virtue

Is it? Is it really? The thing that struck me when I watched Steve Jobs was how frustrating his life must have been. He could see the future and yet he had to constantly explain what he was doing to a bunch of comparative halfwits. I imagine this is how all millennials feel. It may only be their first day at their new job, but they can already see their future there. They are already running the company and steering it in a completely new direction. They simply don’t have time to explain it to halfwits. When I was young, there was nothing cooler than appearing to be a complete drop-out who gave precisely zero shits about anything. Now young people aspire to be CEOs of tech companies. We can either moan about millennials’ sense of unfiltered ambition or we can take a leaf out of their book and aim big ourselves.

See more of Mr Oli Beale’s work at oliandalex.com

Illustrations by Mr Stephan Schmitz