Millennials and New Consumerism

As a member of the generation usually referred to as Y or millennials, I thought it would be interesting to look at the way young people embody the shift in state of mind that we call New Consumerism. We have also been working on this subject at Euro RSCG London, supported by semiotics studies, interviews, and Prosumer workshops.

I would like to start with this video from the Morning Benders, the Californian band progressively conquering our iPods:

The Morning Benders: Promises from Epilogue Magazine on Vimeo.

    The sense of impermanence heard here might strike some as noncommittal, but it mostly seems honest, an admission that life often goes by drifts. In any other context, a lyric like “I know this won’t last” would come off as naively hopeful or depressingly defeatist. In the case of the Benders, it’s their way of saying it’s just another day. Jonathan Garrett, Pitchfork.com

This song illustrates how tricky it is to get a grasp on this generation. As Gen Yers gradually enter the adult world, they reveal themselves as more ambiguous than we first believed.

Yes, the millennials are a fundamentally optimistic, responsible, and entrepreneurial group. Throughout our research, they have appeared as producers of culture, smart not “smashed” and “trying to work it out.” And there is plenty of evidence out there to prove this point: Look at the (ironic) Newport State of Mind phenomenon in the U.K. or at the success of the One Young World conference, for instance.

However, in the meantime, tensions seem to appear. “I hear we are called the ‘lost generation,’” one of the Prosumers told us. Another one added: “I’ve grown up thinking I can be what I want to be, but I can’t; the jobs aren’t out there.” While everything appears possible with relatively little effort thanks to the Web (the Facebook or Arctic Monkeys success stories as examples among many others), this disappointment with reality is important.

The disillusionment spreads to the cultural sphere as well. The hidden or underground rallying points seem to be prevented from flourishing as anything turns mainstream with a blink of an eye via the social networks (which could explain the success of some more secretive or low-fi initiatives such as Secret Cinema or La Blogotheque). Young people sense they have little control over this culture.

This is accentuated by a feeling of abandonment and a lack of structuring references; “Nobody is out there to help us.” So, for this generation, primarily driven by the desire of fulfillment, the influences come from all over the places and periods (which has meant the absence of any solid established youth tribes). Traditional structures have well and truly disappeared.

Thus young millennials also seem to exemplify the high sensitivity to risk and disappointment with modern life that we have seen rising in our New Consumer survey. The Ys were strongly shaken by the financial crisis at a time when they were entering adulthood. It is now, at this critical point, that they need to reaffirm their values and fulfill their prophecy. And the rest of society is calling on them to do so. However, confronted with this new canvas to build on and lacking traditional structure or reference, they will need help. Coincidentally, as we realize that consumption for consumption sake is not desirable and viable, brands can find here a role and sense. The “structuring brands” could work in partnership with millennials to help them find the way: supporting young people in the development of their own meanings and philosophies while also nurturing their talent.

Image credit: mikydepp@flickr.com

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6 Responses to “Millennials and New Consumerism”

  1. So insightful.

    I’m fascinated by almost any examination of Gen Y, as a Yer myself. This especially struck me:

    “I’ve grown up thinking I can be what I want to be, but I can’t; the jobs aren’t out there.”

    While I was pregnant – past the median age of child birth in the US but still a young mom – I thought this to myself constantly. I had a major break when I realized I couldn’t be whatever I wanted to be, if I ever figured it out.

    Then, I gave birth – both to a beautiful baby girl and a new sense of possibility. Two years later, I completely support my family doing work I would have only dreamed of, even in my most idealistic years.

    So – I think there will be lost Gen Yers. There will be struggling Yers. But there is also a group of Gen Yers living out exactly what we were told we could do. I think the struggle is part of the process – and it’s what will make our dreams more long lasting than previous generations’.

  2. Ann O'Reilly says:

    Nicely put, Tara! I also hope that “what I want to be” won’t be tied as exclusively to paid employment as it has been in the last few decades. We’ve really been limiting ourselves.

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  5. Damion Blesh says:

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