Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jumping to Conclusions about How Well You Know Millennials

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………….."

Millennials.  Everybody wants them, wants to know what they think, what they want, what they respond to and how to reach them.

The interest has been growing for nearly as long as the generation has come of age.  As a generation, they are bigger in numbers than the vaulted Baby Boomers, with potentially even more buying power and influence.  As they are the future, it's no wonder everyone is obsessed with them.

Back in 2007 / 2009, I authored a study for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (entitled Youth in the Arts - but which should probably have been entitled The Millennial Generation in the Field of Arts Administration).  It was one of the first attempts in our field to delve into the needs, thoughts, aspirations and thinking of the Millennial generation of Arts Administrators.  It was the genesis of joint efforts by Hewlett, Irvine, Haas and other foundations to support Emerging Leaders (a moniker I disliked back then, and continue to dislike) Groups in California, and that effort sparked other efforts across the country.  We in the arts are as keen on trying to understand the Millennials (and thus the future) within our own sphere (as staff employees) as we are in understanding Millennials as our audiences, patrons, supporters and volunteers - now and to come.

Article after article has characterized and classified this generation in an attempt to define them.  We (and the "we" here is probably mostly boomers, but some Gen Y people and perhaps even the Millennials themselves) have surveyed, studied, analyzed and dissected this generation and come to some hard conclusions about who they are, what they want and how they behave. Doubtless there is truth in some of our conclusions, as we have relied at least in part on what this cohort has to say about themselves.  Other sectors have similarly spent time and resources to paint as accurate a picture of Millennials as they can in the race to know how best to market to them (and there is clearly much at stake).  We have come to certain conclusions in trying to understand this generation. They are less interested in things and more interested in experiences, they want authenticity and transparency.  They deplore "spin doctors" and value honestly. They are generally more liberal than previous generations, particularly on social issues. They are high tech savvy and reliant. They communicate in different ways than other generations and are both comfortable and uncomfortable in different ways than those that came before them.  They are concerned about the environment, social justice, and are ok with gay marriage.  As a Boomer in Berkeley in the late 60's, so were we.

Millennials spend more of their money on electronics, clothes, concerts, and dining out because they don't yet have families, mortgages, layers of insurance or even necessarily drive cars.  But for how long will their budgets allocate their more limited income to those areas?  When inevitable shifts come, what will they mean?  There are often more questions in studying a cohort than answers.  And that is a problem in planning.

Yes, we have begun to understand Millennials.  And we are now investing time and energy in the development and deployment of strategies to reach and recruit them - as co-workers, allies, audiences, patrons, supporters and champions -- based in large part on our (theoretical) understanding of them.

But are we rushing to judgment and perhaps jumping to conclusions and making risky assumptions about them?

I am a Boomer.  An early Boomer.  When I was at Berkeley in the 60's, as a generation we shared many commonalities with today's Millennials, at least to the extent that we too were thought to be the future, we too were vaulted as being different from those who came before us, and we too were classified, categorized and lumped together as a homogenous cohort.  Assumptions were made about us, by both the outside world and by those of us in the generation ourselves.  One of the biggest mistakes those of us at Berkeley and in similar places around the country made back then was in assuming that everyone in our generation thought as we did.  We listened to the same music, donned the same uniforms. adopted the same lexicon and obviously all thought the same.

Wrong.  As it turned out we were not all on the same page, we did not all have the same beliefs or experiences, nor did we share all the same basic values and positions.  Our tastes and preferences across a broad swatch of things was anything but a consensus.  It turned out the media's attempt to pigeonhole us as all of the same mind from the same mold, was way off the mark. Today, my generation is remarkably conservative on any number of issues - not the firebrands we were (or thought we were) back then.

The fact is that no generation is really that homogenous.  Rather we reflect all the differences, vagaries, outlooks and attitudes that differentiate the country.  While, as a generation growing up at the same time, we shared a lot of things, we never shared everything. We were as different as our numbers.  So too, I suspect, are the Millennials.  Not all Millennials are tech savvy, not all Millennials eschew materialism in favor of authentic experiences, not all Millennials are liberal on social issues.  Not all Millennials think alike, process information the same, have the same aspirations or values.

And more importantly, like the Boomers and every other generation, the Millennials are very likely -- over time -- to change who they are, what they think and value and how they behave. Millennials are likely to grow more conservative, likely to alter their world view, change their attitudes, tastes, values and wants as they adapt to life in their 30's and 40's and beyond.  It happens with every generation. And those changes may come faster and run deeper as "change" itself is changing.

And so we ought to ask ourselves how reliable any portrait of them, at any point in time, really is.  To what extent can we really base long term strategies and approaches to making them part of our world  on who they are today - or who we think they are today. Like many other aspects of life in the modern world, we need to be adaptive and innovative in how we approach Millennials at any given moment in time, and we have to consider the risk in devising and implementing strategies aimed at them that are rigid and inflexible.

While we want hard answers and reliable facts on which we can base our actions, that may simply no longer be possible.  The only lesson that might be clear is that we need to treat all cohorts with which we interact and with whose members we want different kinds of relationships with respect.  Millennials like all generations are offended by patronization, and perhaps nothing is more patronizing than the assumption you've got someone figured out when that person very well may not yet have figured themselves out.

Prudence dictates that what we know of Millennials based on our experience with those from that generation who have joined our ranks, may not be a reasoned approach, for it very well may be that the cohort of Millennials that are now within our ranks is hardly representative of the whole of their generation.  Then too we really need to examine our own perspective and pre-determined prejudices about the Millennial generation.

A case in point.  We have been extorted to master social media marketing (particularly Facebook),and put (if not all, than many) of our 'eggs' in that basket.  But there is already evidence that: 1) Younger Millennials are leaving Facebook as older people flock to it; and 2) email - dutifully pronounced all but dead as anathema to Millennials, seems to have far more lifeblood than previously thought.   On the other hand, Facebook is hardly seriously on the decline, and email may yet become a relic.  It's hard to trust trends, or even to verify their existence.  And that makes drawing conclusions a difficult business.

Moreover, considering the Millennial generation as first and foremost defined by being part of that generation, cavalierly discounts the role that ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status, geographic residency, political affiliation, parental influence and a host of other factors plays in their decision making about all the things we in the arts field are interested in.

The point is:  Everything is in constant flux and change, including how to characterize, define and understand any given cohort of people, and history shows us that change continues throughout the life of a generation; cohorts rarely remain static.  The temptation is great to rush to judgment as we desperately seek answers and conclusions on which we can act.  Remember, virtually all of the technology that now defines us - smart phones and tablets and notebooks -- and all the applications, social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapshot, Pinterest etc.), and the rest -- are basically less than a decade old, and in the wake of their introduction everything has changed.  What are the odds your Millennial strategies will be outdated in 18, 24 or 30 months?  I think it a reasonable question.

There is obviously nothing wrong with trying to understand our future markets.  In fact, we are obligated to do so with as much sophistication as we can manage.  We need to know as much as we can about all the generations of society.  But we ought to be cautious in jumping to conclusions about how to proceed with strategies and approaches to tapping into any given market.   Even if we do, in fact, have a fairly accurate picture of the Millennial generation today, the assumption that that understanding will be accurate tomorrow is risky at best.  It may be wiser to consider that the assumptions on which we base our decisions will change (perhaps even dramatically so) over even the short run.  It may be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that we have figured the puzzle out and that we can move forward secure in either the accuracy or longevity of our judgments.  The best advice may be to act on what you know (or think you know), but be prepared to quickly alter your actions as things (and your understanding) change - because change they will.  The new reality may just be that the shelf life of any strategy addressing any challenge may be measured in months, not years.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.