The Millennial Confusion Syndrome

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It’s impossible not to notice how frequently the word “Millennial” is being used by all levels of business media. I admit, there is certainly a cool factor in being able to understand and apply a term that not only sounds futuristically cool, but is also closely related to social media and technology — and we all know how intriguing those topics always are.

I have no issue with the ubiquitous coverage of Millennials. I support and encourage journalism that helps society understand itself, especially when such efforts are designed to help entrepreneurs and business owners to succeed. What I do find problematic, however, is how confused many of my non-Millennial business associates seem to become whenever we talk about the application of Millennial culture into business-related initiatives like branding, customer loyalty, social networks, and mobile advertising. These non-Millennials, who consist of Baby Boomers and members of the once-hyped-about Generation X (who I like to collectively call the “X-Boomers”), all seem to know varying degrees of facts about Millennial culture and behavior. But, these X-Boomers also appear to have a difficult time understanding how this social phenomenon all plays out in real life, especially when it comes to doing business with Millennials who undoubtedly represent — and will continue to represent — an increasing majority of their customers.

I like to refer to this condition as the Millennial Confusion. But regardless of what it’s called, the condition’s dizzying effects become clearly evident to me whenever I discuss Millennial-targeted marketing strategies with business folks who have spent the majority of their careers under the heavy influence of classical business case studies, such as the ones that talk about why Michael Jackson was pivotal to Pepsi’s success in the 1980s, or how the “Five P’s of Marketing” interdependently helped Proctor & Gamble become a dominant company. Indeed, discussions about Millennial culture with X-Boomers can be productive and informative, but only in isolation. As soon as Millennial-targeted conversations cross over into real-life business applications, it becomes difficult for those afflicted with Millennial Confusion to relate with terms like “engagement,” “flawsome,” “hashtags,” and “Snapchat,” and connect them with their understanding of how the world works…or at least used to work.

I wrote this article to document some of the informal yet self-gratifying exploration I have always wanted to conduct to help explain why Millennial Confusion exists. The very fact that an generation has already been encapsulated into an overused word that once (and very recently) only had the sole definition of describing “a span of a thousand years” is fascinating in its own right. But the reality that our society is not only generating a rising global army of Millennials, but is also becoming strongly influenced by this movement, gives me valid reason to be concerned whenever I am immersed into situations where a misunderstanding of Millennial culture imposes unprecedented challenges for small business owners, especially those of franchised systems that rely heavily on their franchisors for guidance over marketing to, and understanding their customers.

You see, we are now in an economy where a majority of small businesses are owned and operated predominantly by X-Boomers, but frequented by a consumer population that is increasingly Millennial. Even though our society has had experience with socials gaps in the past when the Baby Boomers and Generation X represented a majority of the workforce, the difference then between the two generations was not nearly as stark as the one X-Bookers face today with Millennials.

A lot of this can be explained by citing technological advances and the knowledge chasms this type of evolution naturally creates between the generations. But if you think about the previous social impact of radio and television, it’s incomparable in many ways to the global disruption of the Internet and mobile technology. Things like social networks, omnipresent communications, infinite data storage, optical networks, and mobile technology have completely uprooted the previous social norms and expectations with which our world previously navigated, so much so that businesses which are unwilling or unable to resolve their Millennial Confusion have been abandoned by their customers in ways that are similar to how rebellious teens might distance themselves from unreasonable and overbearing parents “who just don’t understand.” Examples that immediately come to mind: AOL, Kodak and Yahoo (before Marissa Mayer). Conversely, brands that were previously losing touch with their customers, but now understand and leverage Millennial culture, are being rewarded by those customers in bountiful ways. Example: Old Spice and Hanes Underwear (who, recently on Twitter, asked customers to mention the color of their, well, underwear).

I have come to conclude that the reason why Millennial Confusion exists has nothing to do with unchangeable generational differences in things like norms, values, expectations, and manners. If these differences were really to blame, I believe our society would already have attributed them to normal generational gaps that always become easier to work through over time because we are naturally (albeit reluctantly) accepting of them. Millennial culture is different. It continues to excite us. Millennials seem to have created a consistently chaotic social fabric that is characteristically whimsical, fast moving, technologically savvy and truth seeking, in which honest, self-deprecating and/or humorously sarcastic attitudes are easier to believe than boastful and grandiose statements, and in which being perfectly impersonal (which includes one’s ability to determine things like when it is better to text somebody instead of calling them) is actually the preferred way to be personal. I believe that the root cause of Millennial Confusion is the product of our own doing. What I mean by that is our society (and particularly the media) work diligently to define and label the characteristics of Millennial attitudes, but performs this task in the traditional demographically driven frame of mind that tries to correlate these attitudes with ages. One view, albeit unpopular, suggests that only those born on a true millennial date (2000’s) are considered Millennials. More popular views establish birth years that range from mid 1970 to 2000, which would mean that the youngest Millennial today would be 13 years old (now, the age of 13 is to social networks what 16 is to driving, and what 21 is to drinking).

While it is true that the Millennial population today is predominantly comprised of young teens to 30-something professionals who cannot live without their iPhones, the Millennial way of life is not one that is shared only by these age groups. Rather, by its very nature, “Millennialism” is a movement that is open to, and can be seamlessly embraced by people of all ages, and not just those who are X-Boomers. “Millennial” should not be defined as the evolutionary offspring of Generation X and Baby Boomers. Millennial represents a fundamental shift in human behavior, driven by technology that not only spans age groups but also crosses every continental border on Earth. And yes, I believe Millennials include people who were born in the 1950s and 1960s, but only if they have openly embraced the Millennial culture.

Millennial culture represents a way of life that has been created by the abundant and fluid ways with which technology allows us to communicate, stay connected to each other, and find and share information that helps us live better lives. The word “Millennial” should not be used to describe a generation of people; a common alternative term like Generation Y, or perhaps even Generation Z, might be more relevant options.

In my opinion, any person who is alive today is a Millennial. (Millennial by its very definition references all of the years between 1999 and 3000, and not only those who may have come to age during that time). Any person who uses a Smartphone or accesses the Internet is a Millennial. Yes, there are different degrees of how “Millennial” one might be, and one’s propensity to learn new things may dictate that variable. But the Millennial culture that continues to captivate the attention of worldwide media is the one we all live in today.

The continued excitement over Millennials is merely a sign of how much our world has changed. And it is only by understanding this reality that Millennial Confusion will cease to exist. Once more and more people begin to accept the fact that we are all Millennials, there will be less fear of departing from the traditions of our past, and more collective energy focused on things that will help us in the future.

Dan Kim is the Founder and Chief Concept Officer of Red Mango, a leading national frozen yogurt and smoothie franchise with over 200 units. He regularly engages with his 1.7+ million followers with his Twitter accounts @dankimredmango and @redmango, and has a combined Facebook fan base of nearly one million fans for /redmango and /dankimredmango. He is also active on his personal Facebook account, fb.com/frozenyogurt.

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