Millennials: A Code, A Challenge, A Generation

Report written by Sammy Roach

When we think of a “generation” of people, we might simply think of a group of people belonging to a particular age group, or we may also find ourselves thinking of the many different beliefs and values that become associated with those age groups, and those stereotypical associations are where barriers to communication are built. On November 3rd, 2016, the London Youth Advisory Council had a discussion on the term “millennials.” Led by LYAC facilitator Matt Smith, the group spoke about the different characteristics that tend to be ascribed to millennials, and the seemingly enigmatic status of the millennial human as being a code to crack according to article after article. As many of the councillors, staff, and volunteers that make up the LYAC are millennials themselves, the meeting produced an animated discussion. Just who do they think we are, really?

Who Should Read This?

  • Millennials
  • Managers and marketers trying to solve the millennial enigma
  • Politicians and city staff who want to crack the millennial code

What is a Millennial?

Matt began the discussion by starting a brainstorm on what a millennial is, or rather, what a millennial is perceived to be, according to the millennials themselves. What are some of the characteristics, both positive and negative, that get ascribed to millennials? Are these labels deserved?

  • On the positive side, millennials are perceived as more technologically adaptable, since the millennial generation in particular has grown up surrounded by technology. However, this can backfire with the assumption that millennials are go to for technical issues.
  • In terms of social issues, millennials are often perceived as more educated, innovative, and more open to equality.
  • On the negative side, millennial is frequently used as a derogatory term, as millennials are frequently labelled as privileged or entitled. It’s easy to find articles featuring lists of things millennials have “ruined,” which can range from golf to vacations to even napkins.
  • In terms of the workforce, there are several articles discussing specific management techniques targeted at millennials.
  • Millennials are often labelled as wanting “instant gratification,” which can take the form of needing texts back immediately, or getting to places immediately. However, as some in the group pointed out, instant gratification has been the path of human society for a long time. For example, the concept of fast food has been around far longer than millennials.
  • Millennials are often posited as a code to be cracked, an enigma to solve for reasons the group pondered, including power.

The group quickly shared the negativity that surrounds millennials as a group, and we discussed where that could be coming from. Some noted that older generations have been giving negative characterizations to younger generations for decades, looking back at the “hippie” generation, or Generation X, for an example. One member of the group noted that it can become easy for millennials to internalize those negative characteristics and judge each other with these stereotypes. Separated out from all of the stereotypes and subjective judgements, what is the value of using generation grouping as an analytical tool? The group shared some thoughts on the merits but also challenges of using generations as a metric.

  • Analyzing generations can help determine the environments people grow up, which is important in turn because environments shape who we are, and observing trends in demographic information can be useful for predicting future environments
  • Others in the group were quick to add that the value is in statistics, not characteristics – viewing generations as age brackets as opposed to subjective descriptors as focusing on characteristics can quickly be used to place blame as well as strip people of their individual identity.
  • Some in the group felt there is no value in using generational data because there are many outliers to the trends, noting that as human beings we tend to want to group people together, we like to generalize, and that can be harmful.
  • Another challenge of using generations as ways to find trends is that with rapidly accelerating technology, gaps are getting smaller, and there is more variation and change within what we traditionally think of as a generation in a shorter amount of time

Generations might be a confusing and frustrating metric to some, because not only do the groups seem to inevitably be painted with wide brushes, but the rate of change is accelerating so rapidly the blocks of time used to name generations might be outdated. However, grouping by generation is still a tool used in many instances, including city planning, which is where Matt took the conversation next.

Millennials as a “Challenge”

Matt pulled out a large binder and set it on the table, introducing it to the group as The London Plan. The London Plan is a guiding document for the development of London over the next 20 years, and is divided into several sections. In particular, Matt highlighted a section in the “Our Challenge” section of the Plan, titled “Preferences of the Millennials.”  This section of the plan describes a millennial as “being less automobile focused, environmentally conscious, more likely to seek out highly urban environments, and for placing a high premium on “staying connected” through their social behaviours and the use of technology.”  Matt noted that the London Plan names the millennial generation as a challenge, and that the Plan does not contain many other mentions of youth. Here are some of the other thoughts the group shared with regard to the London Plan’s characterization of millennials:

  • By labelling millennials as “environmentally conscious” but also a future challenge, there is almost a sense of pushing off environmental change to millennials.
  • The re-outlining of what the generation covers in terms of birth years raised some skepticism about the 20 year generational breakdown. People born in 1980 and in 2000 lead completely different lives.
  • Some members of the group questioned whether we are really less automobile focused – and if that is true, what the reason for that is. Is it being environmentally conscious or is it because we are less able to afford cars? This statistic could also be skewed because of students using public transit, but with no facts to illuminate that in this section, it’s hard to tell.
  • In terms of language, ”the” Millennials feels like a way to distance Millennials as a group
  • One member of the group offered a point in defense of the plan – saying that while the Plan might not directly refer to youth often, it does focus on issues that have significant impact on youth, such as public transit.

Having explored different stereotypes and perceptions of millennials, from millennials as a challenge to be faced to millennials as the most progressive generation, Matt closed the group discussions with a difficult question. Is the term millennial empowering or marginalizing? Here are some thoughts on why that term might be either:

  • It’s empowering, because as Millennials get older we become the mainstream along with the positive social values associated with the generations.
  • It’s empowering in that it’s a matter of taking the term back from people who use it negatively, instead using it to describe the Millennial generation’s adaptability to ride through the uncertainty characterizing the millennium.
  • It’s marginalizing, because the term and the sectioning off of a generation as “the Millennials” involves putting people in a box and losing their personal traits.
  • It’s marginalizing, because it’s used to turn Millennials into an enigma, an object for analysis rather than meaningful engagement.

Clearly, the group was split on whether the term was marginalizing or empowering. A generation is a difficult label to understand, as it may seem like an objective tool for gathering data when really it is so much more, becoming loaded with meanings that are used to section people off based on perceived negative values that supposedly belong to an entire section of the population born in the same range of years. What values will we ascribe to the generation that follows us? Will we make the same accusations and assumptions that are made towards us?

Personal Stories

LYAC Executive Director Melissa Kamphuis and Council Director Kayley MacGregor both shared stories of being at different conferences and events where they were greeted with surprise for holding their roles at their particular ages. They described the experience patronizing, to the point of receiving some backhanded compliments. Though this can be a frustrating experience, Melissa and Kayley suggested that using that surprise to your advantage, giving the example of Amir Farahi’s campaign for city council. As the youngest candidate in the running, Amir received significant media attention, which he was able to use to amplify the youth voice.

Reporter’s Notes

It’s certainly frustrating to constantly see headlines about the enigmatic status of millennials – and it’s ironic that the millennial generation is looked down on for wanting instant gratification when various institutions and organizations are trying to instantly figure out and break down millennials. However, as Melissa and Kayley mentioned with their example of Amir, we can use our youth status to grab attention and defy expectation.

Big Questions

  • How do we re-think the idea of “generations”?
  • Are we able separate generations from the subjective qualities we give them and regard generations are pure data?

Things We Still Need to Learn

  • If we look back at previous generations, what are some of the other trends used to undermine millennials that are not unique to the millennial generation?