What’s wrong with the Millennials?

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First Ltd

The Millennials (aka Generation Y) - you must have seen them. They’re that cohort of your colleagues born between the mid 1980s and the year 2000. They’re the ones who are self-obsessed, disengaged, and the reason the world is going to hell in a handcart.

References to 'Millennials’ are everywhere.

A quick search on Google found over 200 million hits, and Amazon has at least 7,000 books on the subject. Time magazine attempted to summarise all this writing by noting that this generation are “lazy, entitled, narcissists, who still live with their parents” but who, apparently, “will save us all”.

Which would be nice, except none of it is true.

Not only are your Millennial colleagues not like this, but the notion that we can cluster people into cohorts based on their age is simply nonsense.

The generations’ idea has a long history but it really started gaining momentum with what is known as the ‘Strauss-Howe’ generational theory. This is based on a model that William Strauss and Neil Howe set out in their book Generations, and it is where the notion of Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials really took hold.

It’s a beautifully elegant scheme.

Al Gore called Generations ’the most stimulating book on American history’ he'd ever read. He even sent a copy to each member of Congress. But, as any decent social scientist will tell you, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And here things start to fall apart quickly.

When scrutinised, the ‘evidence’ for generational differences reveals itself to be a bundle of non-falsifiable truisms which explain everything and predict nothing. Sure, the stories they tell about Millennials are often upbeat, fun to read, and eminently quotable, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. What they are is all pastry and no pie. After all, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not data.

However, there is no real need to debate the evidence for once. This is because it is pretty simple to demonstrate that the notion of ‘generations’ is ridiculous on the face of it. The idea that tens of millions of people across the world will share values or ways of communicating (or even an aptitude for technology) just because they were born in the same 20 year period is laughably absurd. If you simply stop and think about what is being claimed about Millennials (or any of the other Generations), then it becomes obvious that those claims are as implausible as they are contrived.

Try it another way: Why do we accept that we can divide our colleagues at work (to take just one example) into three or four distinct groups based on the year they are born in but reject as ridiculous the notion that we can divide them into twelve groups based on the month they are born in? In other words, why is there a serious discussion about Millennial employees but not about Sagittarian interns?

Social scientists are clear that – when groups get big enough - the differences within the groups will be greater than the differences between the groups. This is precisely what the serious research about attitudes and attributes by birthdate show us. The story is one of continuity, showing that members of subsequent generations are much more alike than they are different.

But if the case against ‘Millennials’ is so strong, why is it so popular? (recall those 200 million hits and 7,000 books mentioned earlier). The answer is because there are whole industries who benefit from that belief. As a result, the notions of generations are often uncritically promoted in the media and slickly marketed. Think about all the times you have seen some offering, for a fee, to help improve how you communicate with, engage with, or sell to, the Millennial generation.

That’s what the notion of generations really is, an idea to persuade you to buy something. It’s a marketing success story but it remains terrible social science. Instead of focusing on when we were born, social scientists talk about differences by referencing our gender, our ethnicity, how affluent we are, where we were born, who we socialised with, and the whole rich tapestry of human experience. Social scientists wish the world was as simple as the notion of generations promises but it stubbornly isn’t.

In one regard, my argument here is that the notion of generations is an elaborate con and that social science provides a powerful riposte to being conned. But the argument also hides a criticism of many of the ideas that we uncritically use to explain the social world. How many of those ideas fall into the same trap as the notion of ‘generations’? More to the point, how often do you stop to think about the ideas you use to make sense of the social world?

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

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