What is a millennial?

We’ve been using the term millennial to describe young adults for nearly ten years now, but can you define a millennial?

This is the challenge we looked at on Saturday at the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia’s Stewardship Conference. I was asked to speak on communicating your mission to a younger audience. Of course, I took this as an invitation to shake things up a bit.

What-Is-A-Millennial-1We started with a persona.

Let’s meet my favorite millennial. I’m going to use a persona. Personas are a great way to look at your audience – they take into account the behaviors, likes and dislikes of your audience, and help you know how to communicate your mission to get their attention.

My favorite millennial:

  • He’s a software developer living in the Pacific Northwest
  • He’s tertiary educated, with a commitment to life-long learning.
  • He’s very passionate about getting the job done correctly and will put the hours in to make that happen
  • He’s creative and wants to make things better – he’ll take a product and rewrite the code for fun if he knows it can be improved.
  • While he works hard and a lot of hours, he also “parties” hard. If he’s not working, he’s with family or sailing.
  • He is also generous giving to causes and projects he believes in.

At this point, I showed a photo of his granddaughter watching my favorite millennial in the start of a yacht race. I’ve removed it now to give them a little more privacy.

The looks on the faces of the audience at this stage were amusing. It ranged from shock that a millennial could have a granddaughter to curiosity. Then I dropped it on them: my favorite millennial turns 60 this year.

Younger generation – millennial – whichever term you want to use is more a behavioral change, not age. It’s a mindset. We’re using audience personas and psychographics over demographics, so why are we labeling people based on the single metric of age?

What does research say a millennial is?

Going by age, this group isn’t that different from previous age generations. A recent IBM study found they want to make a difference. They want financial stability, and they want to be an expert in their field. To be passionate about what they do. In those areas, they’re actually more like baby boomers than Generation X – my age grouping.

Areas where millennials differ is that they expect a higher level of transparency and openness. Ethical behavior and fairness mean a lot to them. Despite the reputation, they are not all as tech savvy as previous generations.

It wasn’t in the scope of the IBM study, but this group is very questioning. They want to know why things happen and will research. College attendance is higher in this group, as is their knowledge of current affairs. The news comes from online shares and televisions are going to be connected to a computer, not a cable box. Newspapers are too slow.

The millennials wanting to make a difference has transferred to their giving practices – both their time and their money. This has changed the giving practices, and from what I’ve seen this expands further than just those with the millennial mindset.

Jimmy-Fallon-ALS-ChallengeThis group is more likely to support an event or campaign that catches their attention, rather than a cause. That’s why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was so successful. They’re asking for donations to charities instead of birthday gifts, but they may change the charity from year to year.

A question posed during the presentation was: “Isn’t this just showing that millennials are slackers?” I counter with saying fickle could be a better word. Driven also works. The mindset is wider than their local geographic community, so their support spreads wider. Yes, this group also job hops, compared to those who consider a job for life. This is because they will make their own opportunities instead of waiting for management to hand it to them. And they’ll take the risks required to make this happen.

We can all name people born between 1980 and the early 2000s who fit these behaviors, but I’m sure you can name others too. I was told later that when I was describing my favorite millennial one audience member was whispering “that’s my husband” at each point. I know I can also name people born in the millennial age range who act more like baby boomers. Where do you fit?

Life After Labels

Brian Fanzo from the Millennial CEO has pointed out, understanding the millennial mindset is essential as the way as work (and I add live) is changing. Let’s accept that and move from generalizations of what is a millennial to studying our audiences and customizing our communications to them, not how we expect them to be.

The Pew Research Center has created a How Millennial Are You? survey. I challenge you to take it and add your result in the comments. For full disclosure, I was born in 1975 and scored 98 on the scale of 100. I guess I need a tattoo to perfect the score.

References and Resources

This is a blog post, not an academic article, so here’s the list of references and resources. I’ve chosen to sacrifice academic referencing to give you greater readability.

HubSpot – Developing Audience Personas
The Millennial CEO – What is a Millennial Mindset? Not the original link (which is no longer available). Understanding The Millennial Mindset Is Increasingly Important To Management – Forbes.
The Pew Research Center’s How Millennial Are You? survey that prompted the above research
IBM’s Millennials in the Workplace Study that compares core beliefs between millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers.
Millennials and Philanthropy – NPR

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