“Baby Boomers are selfish. We have to have things the way we want them,” said my mom, a 72-year-old Baby Boomer. She was parroting something she’d heard from an old sociological study. “Weird,” I thought. “That’s pretty much the same thing I was told about my generation, Gen X.”
Fast-forward three months and I’m having a conversation with a millennial colleague who just stopped using a sippy cup. I can’t say how old he is for sure, but the guy is practically embryonic. Anyway, it caught my attention when he made an offhand remark about how his generation is known for being self-centered. Double weird.
These days a lot of marketing focus is being placed on millennials. There are a ton of them, first of all, and they have an appetite for new products, new technology and new ideas. Millennials are entering the workforce in droves with money to spend. It makes sense that there’s a lot of interest in how they think, act and spend, but only so much wisdom can be gleaned from reading data.
To truly understand this generation, we have to gather it the old fashioned way—by paying attention. If you want to know the data on a certain segment of the population, read a study. But if you want to figure out what this group made of, what makes them tick, what matters to them, you have to walk a mile in their TOMS. (Millennials love TOMS.) Here are four timeless lessons I learned from being a Gen X-er that can be applied to marketing to millennials.
Lesson 1: Don’t confuse youthful inclinations with generational homogeny.
I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t read whatever study convinced my mom she’s a self-centered Baby Boomer, nor do I remember who told me that my Gen-X brothers and sisters are known for being self-absorbed. I haven’t seen any bar graphs proving millennials are more into themselves than the rest of us.
I’m sure somewhere there are researchers who put their hearts into gathering this information, researchers who then presented us with a map of modern society all laid out in a tapestry of tidy patterns. Much respect. But the part that stuck with me, my millennial coworker and my Boomer mother is the perception that each of our generations is uniquely selfish. That’s not to say we’re not selfish, just that we’re not unique in our selfishness. Isn’t it possible that these studies managed to describe, well, just youth? Independent, self-focused, adventurous, free-spirited: show this list to a millennial, an X-er and a Boomer and they’ll each say, “Yep, that’s my people.”
Lesson 2: Don’t talk smack about millennials if you want them as customers.
Labeling entire generations with unsavory descriptors isn’t the work of sociology papers alone. I’ve noticed that we Gen X-ers, like the Boomers before us, take every opportunity to criticize the new kids. Without a hint of self-awareness, we titter over how weird and annoying their clothes are, how their music is base and derivative and how they should all take a break from their phones and throw a football once in a while. And don’t get me started on how wack their vernacular is. I mean, gag me with a spoon!
But let’s be real. I have no room to talk. I’m a Gen X-er. We ushered in the video game era from a beanbag chair while wearing pleated, acid-washed jeans and a cropped Panama Jack T-shirt. I’m from the generation that thought Billy Idol invented punk rock.
It’s common to engage in “kids these days” trash talk, particularly when we become parents of teenagers. We’ve done this since the beginning of time. I’m sure if you look closely at the Lascaux cave paintings, you’ll spot two cave dads shaking their heads at the way their cave teens wear their loincloths sideways (which, if we’re being honest, really does defeat the purpose). Discussing kids’ shortcomings is as reliable a topic as the weather. It’s no wonder they’re leery of advertising that’s being created by people who label them as crude, self-centered, lazy weirdos.
“Kids these days” aren’t trying to make us crazy by going against the grain. They’re just doing what they do, which is to not do what we do. Did you ever notice that as soon as kids are old enough to care about their clothes, they immediately begin to wear what their parents wouldn’t be caught dead in? If high-waisted, pleated, cuffed pants are popular for one generation, the next generation will favor bell-bottomed hip-huggers.