People born between 1980 and 1999 have been called a whole lot of names recently. Fast Company called us Generation Flux; Time Magazine called us Generation Me. We’ve been labeled entitled and narcissistic, self-starting and screwed. It’s enough to make you angry. Since many of us at BLKBOX qualify as millennials, and we spend a significant portion of our time doing market research, it didn’t surprise us to learn that ours is the most researched generation in history. But what did surprise us—in fact, what outrages us—is that so much of the research misses the point.
Take the Pew Research quiz, “How Millennial Are You?” for example. The questions have nothing to do with a person’s interests, passions, beliefs or motivation, and everything to do with habits that have changed across society. Things like reading a daily newspaper, watching multiple hours of television, and owning more than one digital device. Yes, perhaps I’m more “millennial” than someone who still owns a landline. But these aren’t insights. They’re observations. And without context, these data points are as meaningless as age, sex and race. Consumer research will always have its place finding patterns and trends, but the devil (and the dollars, for that matter) really is in the details.
If you want to know millennials, you have to go one at a time.
Millennials are diverse—in every sense of the word. We’re constantly learning and constantly changing. And that’s why there’s so much conflicting consumer research. A 2014 Federal Reserve study reported that 36 percent of young adults have moved back in with their parents. But with a few clicks of a mouse, you can find another study that says millennials are creating more small businesses than any other generation. In fact, the U.S. Chamber Foundation found that 27 percent of millennials are already self-employed. So are young adults slothful or entrepreneurial? It depends on who you ask.
And that’s why we have to stop making assumptions.
It’s never been more dangerous to make broad assumptions about a group of people. Don’t assume you understand what a person likes or dislikes—especially if they’re under the age of 34. Millennials are multidimensional. Imagine holding a prism or a cut gem between two fingers. The more you turn it and try to understand it, the more sides and facets, imperfections and brilliant corners you will find. That’s what millennials are like. And to be honest, that’s what all consumers are like—first because we’re individuals, but also because the digital revolution has opened the doors and exposed us to so much more than anyone ever thought possible.
And then listen.
Try to push a young adult down into your box, and they will happily show you the side you’re expecting to find. But if you want to know them deeply, you’re going to have to do something insane. You’re going to have to listen.
Far too often, marketers walk into a listening session, just to waiting to hear the answer they’ve already decided is correct. A market researcher in the home of a single black mother could waste an entire session waiting to hear her voice her struggles, rather than truly listening to the new brand she loves or the ways her children make her laugh.
It’s vital to have humility—to believe you don’t know the answer. Because at the heart of it, whether they were born in 1900, 1980, or 2014, all people want to be known. They want to be understood. And it’s our job to make sure they are.