Mark Ritson: Millennials are out; blah blahs are your next target group

If you buy the idea of millennials, then you must, by definition, reject the concept of proper segmentation and of consumers holding different perceptions and experiences – millennials are essentially the same.


Twitter might be struggling at present as a corporate entity, but it still occasionally provides outstanding moments of quality social media. And by that I do not mean return on investment or conversations between customers and wood adhesives. I literally mean a social medium in which people interact with each other over a specific app or platform.

And so it was last week when my iPhone pinged to life with: “What is all this Gen Y, Z, millennials bullsh*t? Brains don’t change in a decade. We’re still driven by the same goals as our ancestors.”

I had no idea I followed Phil Barden, managing director at consulting firm Decode Marketing, but when his 140-character missive popped up last week I was jolly glad I did.

Barden is right, despite what you might have read in the 8,000 articles penned this week on the subject of millennials and how they are completely, unquestionably and massively different from the rest of us and how we are totally screwed unless we rip up our marketing plans and start again. It’s all total bullshit.

For starters, if you have been around longer than two years, you might have noticed that the ‘unique characteristics’ that define millennials are the bloody same traits we were ascribing to Generation Y not that long ago, and Generation X before that. You know the bit about how millennials want to ‘give back to society’? Or their ‘discomfort’ in traditional career roles? Or how they have a more ‘global mindset’ and ‘egalitarian principles’? And their literacy with new technology? These are not radical new psychographics, they are part of what sociologists refer to as ‘being young’.

I will hold my hand up. When I was a very inexperienced PhD student in 1994 I wrote a paper on Generation X and its implications for marketing. I got a free train ticket down to London and presented my bullshit paper to a bunch of old people who nodded and wrote stuff down as I went on about how Gen X were not looking for the same kind of career path as baby boomers and about how we cared about the environment and wanted a fairer world.

It might have been true at the time but it sure as hell wasn’t some new trait or one that Gen X would retain past a mortgage, two kids and the inevitable ball crushing reality of mortality gradually unveiling its ugly face every morning in the bathroom mirror.

And even if the bullshit about millennials is true, what, as a marketer, are you going to do with it? Remember how you were trained to avoid mass marketing and to reject broad assumptions about the market? Well, what do you think millennials are? The minute marketers start thinking all millennials are the same, they reject the behavioural and attitudinal nuances of a hugely heterogeneous population and collapse them into one big, generic mess.

If you buy the idea of millennials, then you must, by definition, reject the concept of proper segmentation and of consumers holding different perceptions and experiences. Millennials are essentially the same. They all have 0.3 kids, two-thirds of a degree and one testicle each. Whether they went to private school, have a same-sex orientation, have used your brand before, are female – all of that is trumped by their birth year and the cod-psychology of a bunch of assumptions about their demographically driven motivations.

The most disturbing problem with millennials is that they reinforce the ongoing love affair between marketers and young people that comes at the expense of their more populous, financially bestowed peers who happen to be – look away now – old.

I spent last week travelling around Canada (it’s a long story) with famed misery-guts Bob ‘the Ad Contrarian’ Hoffman. He was even more brilliantly miserable than billed and one of his great observations was that Americans aged 75 to dead will buy more new cars than those aged 18 to 35. Guess who appears in almost all the car ads?

Creating a constant yet changing demographic dynamic allows marketers to focus all their intellectual capacity and tactical efforts on young people and ignore the pasty old fuckers with all the money and buying intentions that they should be going after. And just as the youth segment starts to age and get interesting, we rewind up the age curve to the next revolutionarily different group of young adults.

The only thing that will kill our obsession with millennials is the deadening certainty that we are only a few months away from a new demographic cohort called Blah-Blahs or Generation Q, who will supplant the now over-the-hill millennials and surprise us with their, you guessed it, discomfort with modern career paths and concern for the environment and social justice.