Millennials: A Generation or a State of Mind?

Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel (2005, p. 22) wrote already in 1964 that “there is always a gap between the generations” and that the “conflict between generations is really one form of the maturing process in adolescence, and should trouble us only when it is so wide that the maturing process itself is disrupted.” The 1950s and 1960s were a time of transition, and the popular cultures as we know them today came into prominence, which meant that concepts such as adolescence and teenagers were fully formed. The difference between, for example, the baby boomers and the so-called millennials—people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, and sometimes referred to as generation Y—is that the current generation gap is not that easy to spot. One could argue that we are all millennials, as the concept is linked to a certain type of behaviour rather than an age group or a traditional generation. One reason for this may be the seeming absence of subcultures (Haenfler 2014) among the millennial generation. In addition, parents and their children like the same artists and television programmes, and it is more accepted to be like an adolescent longer in life. The higher expectations of services and experiences is not age specific, but more dependent on our immediate access to remote information networks—and that we can compare, review, air opinions, comment, share photos, criticise and praise in an instant. It is a mode of living, and albeit the younger generations grew up with the Internet, marketers predominantly want to engage millennials, and we are therefore potentially all millennials.

Katrina Luttrell and Karen McGrath (2016) roughly divide the generations before the millennials into three groups: the traditionalists (born 1927-1945), the baby boomers (born 1946-1964) and generation X (born 1965-1980). This division aligns fairly well with other similar classifications. From particularly an American perspective (but relevant from a European perspective too), the traditionalists, or “silent generation,” have been referred to as the “lucky” generation (Easterlin 1980). Merely by “playing by the rules” they were able to earn more and enjoy more security than any other generation (Howe 2014) and they are, according to Neil Howe (2014) “without doubt the healthiest and most educated generation of elders that ever lived—and, of course, the wealthiest.” He adds that in the early 1960s, “the elderly were poorer than young adults by most measures”—something which is not the case, largely speaking, in the 2010s. Although mostly retired, the traditionalists, or “silent generation,” remain influential and connected, and affluent. “In other words,” state Luttrell and McGrath (2016), “they are still relevant in this ever- evolving world.” Millennials, however, are seen as influential consum- ers—it is, perhaps, the most influential generation of consumers (Fromm and Garton 2013)—and their behaviour is closely linked to the development of Web 2.0 and “the participation economy” (Fromm and Garton 2013, p. 8). For millennials, it is important to “connect” with brands, and to actively participate in the building of a brand image (Fletcher et al. 2013). Participation and connectedness is important for most generations, but for millennials—due to having grown up with mobile technology—it is an implicit part of everyday life (Luttrell and McGrath 2016).

Millennials are also likely to be more affected by “FoMO,” the fear of missing out on interesting and exciting things (JWT 2011; Przybylski et al. 2013). Aarick Knighton (2015), in his book Generation-I: the Millennial Mindset, describes social media “snacking” as an addiction, and an ultimately unfulfilling routine:

Scrolling and posting was fun at first. It was this fresh, new portal that only a select demographic knew about and over time grew to be an integral part of society and our daily lives. Whether it’s Myspace, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter or Instagram, they all essentially have the same dynamic. These networks lure you in and by the time you realize it, it’s too late. You’re unconsciously toggling back and forth between your go-to apps even though deep down you know what’s being said has no real affect on your life and you don’t really care. We have more important things to do, but social media has become like a car crash. For some reason we just can’t look away. (Knighton 2015, p. 19).

This gives an impression of an all-consuming behaviour that is anxiety driven rather than a source for joy and positive engagement.

The TV mentality of millennials, states Jessica Walsten (2015, p. 30), is: “what they want, when they want.” Insights like these were somewhat used as an “excuse” by the BBC to move BBC Three (the more “youthful” channel) to the web. In fact, the decision to go online caused 300,000 viewers to sign a petition to keep BBC Three as a regular TV channel. The protests were to no avail, as BBC Three ceased to exist as a television channel from 16 February 2016. The BBC Trust, when they finally approved the shift in November 2015, gave as their rationale that there is a “clear public value in moving BBC Three online, as independent evidence shows younger audiences are watching more online and watching less linear TV” (BBC 2016).

At an Adobe Summit in 2016, Walter Levitt, the CMO of Comedy Central said: “If you’re 18 to 34 and think something is really funny and cool, then you share with your friends [...]. It’s currency for the Millennial generation” (Lacy 2016). James Guerrier (2015a), summarising a Viacom International Insights study, notes that young people—or millennials— “see being self-professed experts as their key defining trait.” The study reveals that being a fan allows young people to express themselves, and it helps them “stand out from the crowd” (Guerrier 2015a). In addition, fandoms help people discover new things, and ultimately a fandom provides the opportunity to be part of a community—which may be increasingly important in a globalised world. The study refers to fandom as a “powerful force.” This terminology recalls Jenkins’s (1992) idealist views of fans and fandoms as forces for good, while Guerrier (2015b), in line with business and marketing discourses, refers to “powerful” as in important consumer segments.

The analysis in business literature about millennials often fails to recognise the contradictory nature of their supposed characteristics (they are independent consumers who know what they want, yet they need other millennials to tell them if something is authentic or not; they embrace new technology and seek exciting experiences, yet they are portrayed as more conservative than any other generation before them) and when they are represented as empowered agents, in complete control of their consumer experience (without wider social, cultural, political and economic factors taken into account), the enthusiasm surrounding pleasing this particular segment seems to be based around how they “should” behave rather than their actual, “authentic,” needs.

The Viacom International Insights survey’s (Guerrier 2015a) take on fandom is similar to that of Fuggetta (2012)—but where Fuggettas most valuable customers are the brand advocates, the Viacom survey focuses specifically on the term “fans,” while exclaiming that “this isn’t your parent’s fandom.” The Viacom International Insights survey further states that

two-thirds of young people consider themselves influential. [...] Young people are vocal about the things they love. [...] Averaging 391 Facebook friends and 231 Twitter followers, this generation is highly connected— and understands the importance of speaking up. [...] Nearly 9 out of 10 agree that normal people with large online followings can be just as influential as celebrities. (Guerrier 2015b)

In their market report The Pursuit of Happiness: Creating Meaningful Brand Experiences for Millennials, based on surveys involving 5800 participants from ten countries (in all continents apart from Africa), ZenithOptimedia

(2015, p. 25) states that technology is so integrated into the lives of millennials that it is impossible for them to imagine life without Web 2.0 and everything that comes with it: “Technology gives Millennials the tools to keep control over their lives; it’s so pervasive that many claim they cannot function without it.” If millennials wish to be in control at all times, it is of course also easier to be controlled through various media technologies. This is something media users are increasingly aware of. If we are to accept that millennials are not necessarily only born between the 1980s and the 2000s, and that the category may include older generations as well (since, it appears, to some extent it is as much a state of mind as anything else), we are all learning how to make technology indispens- able—and how to self-promote, self-censor and self-represent. As part of the “brand manifesto” presented in the ZenithOptimedia (2015, p. 8) market report, delivering “meaningful brand experiences” is important:

We know that Millennials gather experiences in the way that earlier generations amassed prized possessions. Brands can help them do that, be it through helping them express what they stand for or by providing those experiences.

In light of this, it is easier to understand why there are “fans of brands”— as we are increasingly taught to view multinational media corporations as the ultimate producers of great experiences. Hence the willingness for companies to sponsor major events, as they realise that we associate the fantastic experiences with that particular brand (and they can claim that they made the experience possible through their support). Although millennials are said to regard altruism highly, and they are presented as being more genuine in their networking compared to previous generations, they are also framed as caring predominantly about their own happiness—and attending “epic events” or chasing unique experiences not only for enjoyment and adventure, but importantly also because of the social credibility it gives them (ZenithOptimedia 2015). This is in line with Marwick’s (2013) findings, in that people who are active on social media build their own brand and gain status and credibility within their community (which in turn may grant them access to other fields—see, e.g., Bourdieu 2010).

Jared Feldman, founder and CEO of Mashwork, states that “we believe emotion is a currency that you will be able to trade on in the future” (Holloway 2014, p. 10). Mashwork runs Canvs, according to its website “an industry-leading technology platform created to measure and interpret emotions” (Canvs c2016a). For example, Canvs monitor social media activity in relation to televised programmes, and analyse how emotional response and resonance affect aspects such as ratings and ad recall. What is then an emotional reaction in this context? According to Canvs,

Emotional Reactions are defined as any piece of social media content which contains an emotion. Examples of Emotional Reactions are, “I can’t wait for #PLL,” “That is the scariest zombie ever on Walking Dead,” and “WTF Olivia Pope!” Examples of social media content that do not contain Emotional Reactions are, “I’m watching PLL tonight with my BFF” and “Gotta get back from yoga in time for Scandal.” Canvs displays the volume of Tweets as reported by Nielsen, but Canvs only analyzes Emotional Reactions. (Canvs c20l6b)


From misspellings to slang, not understanding the complex nuances of the English language used by Millennials to express their emotions means not truly understanding Millennials. The unique vernacular that Millennials use—along with their penchant for social media expression—is one of the distinguishing attributes of this generation. (Canvs c20l6c)

The expressions “OMG” and “WTF” stood for more than 13 % of the reactions to season five of Teen Wolf (Canvs c2016c).

Like other media producers, Comedy Central (which is a pay TV channel that forms part of Viacom International Media Networks) are actively involved in research into audiences and have through their “Power of Laughter” studies particularly engaged in research relating to what “fans” want. Their studies, which confirm academic studies in the fields of marketing and business management, reveal that there is a “new era of fandom,” and that brands should be aware of its “three elements,” which are “self-expression, discovery and community” (Guerrier 2015c). One of the key points of the insights is that “brands should align with something that is ingrained in young adults’ lives— something they love and ‘feel’—and do so with authenticity.” This use of the term “authenticity” evokes Gilmore and Pine’s (2007) fluid take on “perceived” authenticity.

Brands are also urged to “enable fandom.” “Fans yearn for more— so brands should provide access to content, information and events” (Guerrier 2015c). It is also important to reach and engage the “right” fans, because there is a big difference between active and popular fans (with “fans” of their own) and fans who may not be as extrovert as their more sought-after peers: “Brands need to know where to find the influencers— because they will be a catalyst for generating conversation and spreading the word” (Guerrier 2015c). This is an example of how corporate interests take control over and shape the fandom relating to their media content. This top-down approach to fan management—or, “community management”—is contested in traditional fan studies. While marketing literature often recommend co-creative and democratic producer-consumer relationships, the actual reality may be more complex.

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