‘Millennials rising’: the youth market rejuvenated?

Many countries saw young people hard hit by the global financial crisis of 2007— 8. Youth employment is especially vulnerable during periods of economic downturn (see Ghapter 2), and in both America and Europe the number of jobless youngsters grew. In the US the youth unemployment rate rose from 11.5 per cent in 2008 to 18.2 per cent in 2010 (Bell and Blanchflower, 2011: 13). And, according to the European Commission, the unemployment rate for those aged between 15 and 24 in the EU28 area rose from 15.1 per cent in 2008 to a peak of 23.9 per cent in 2013, before receding to 19.7 per cent by the end of 2015 (European Commission, 2017). In some countries, however, rates remained depressingly high. In May 2017, for example, market analysts Statistica calculated that the youth unemployment rate in Spain had reached 38.6 percent, while that for Greece stood at a colossal 46.6 per cent (Statistica, 2017).

Even in countries less blighted by youth unemployment, commentators were often gloomy about young people’s economic prospects. In Britain, for example, 2010 saw a spate of popular books that blamed Baby Boomers for squandering the fortunes of a young generation who consequentially faced a life of lower earnings, higher education expenses, and rising housing costs." And in

2016 the Resolution Foundation - an independent social research agency — attracted a flurry of publicity when it launched a commission to explore growing inequality between generations. ‘In contrast to the taken-for-granted promise that each generation will do better than the last’, the Foundation warned, ‘today’s 27-year-olds (bom in 1988) are earning the same amount that 27-year-olds did a quarter of a century ago’ (BBC News, 2016). Despite this, however, marketers remained buoyant about youth’s economic potential. Indeed, many enthused at the prospect of what they saw as a new, burgeoning market of young ‘millennials’.

The first use of the term ‘millennials’ is widely credited to the US authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, who coined the term in their books Generations (1991), The Fourth Turning (1997) and Millennials Rising (2000) (see Chapter 1). For Strauss and Howe, ‘millennials’ were the cohort of youngsters bom between 1982 and 2003. Mapped onto the authors’ over-arching model of ‘generational cycles’, millennials represented an archetypal ‘Hero Generation’ — a cohort who come of age at a time of crisis, but rise to address and resolve the challenges (Strauss and Howe, 1997: 84). Strauss and Howe’s depiction was, in fact, positively radiant. Millennials were, the authors averred, ‘more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse’ than ‘any other generation in living memory’. Arguing that a ‘can-do youth revolution’ was set to ‘overwhelm the cynics and pessimists’, Strauss and Howe suggested the early twenty-first century would see the millennial generation ‘entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged - with potentially seismic consequences for America’ (Howe and Strauss, 2000: 4).

As Millennials Rising became a bestseller, the term ‘millennials’ passed into popular usage as a general moniker for those entering young adulthood during the early twenty-first century. The term proved especially popular among marketers and advertisers. Indeed, as the world economy staggered to its feet in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis, many business commentators effused about what they saw as the auspicious commercial possibilities offered by young millennials. Writing in Advertising Age in 2012, for example, E.J. Shultz acknowledged that US millennials had been hard hit by unemployment, but insisted they still represented ‘a force to be reckoned with’, and estimated they would account for consumer spending worth $65 billion over the ensuing decade (Shultz, 2012). Others were equally upbeat. Advertising experts Jeff Fromm and Christie Garton, for instance, argued that millennials represented ‘the largest and most influential generation of consumers ever’ (Fromm and Garton, 2013); while Forbes contributor Micah Solomon declared 2015 to be ‘The Year of the Millennial Customer’. Counselling eager entrepreneurs, Solomon advised that America’s 80 million millennial consumers were ‘about to become the most important customers your business has ever seen’:

In spite of the clichés you see in the media about this generation (rameneating, impecunious, underemployed, and so forth), Millennials are not only the largest generation in U.S. and world history, they’re on the cusp of commanding the largest wallet power as well. It’s estimated they’ll be spending $200 billion annually by 2017 and $10 trillion over their lifetimes as consumers, in the U.S. alone.

(Solomon, 2014)

Millennial consumers outside North America and Europe also attracted interest. With the relentless globalisation of media and consumer industries (see Chapter 7), businesses increasingly turned attention to China, India, the Middle-East, and south-east Asia - regions experiencing rapid economic development, but which also boasted huge (and growing) youth populations. Here, millennial markets seemed to offer rich pickings. In 2017, for example, the blog of market researchers Daxue Consulting advised clients that ‘Chinese Millennials have emerged as a key consumer group in the world’s second-largest economy’, and had ‘demonstrated themselves to be confident, discerning spenders; frugal and yet less price sensitive, particularly with regard to luxury and high-quality goods’ (Daxue Consulting, 2017). And, for global financial services finn Morgan Stanley, the Indian youth market was equally attractive. Writing in Forbes magazine, Morgan Stanley explained that India was ‘on track to become the youngest country in the world by 2020, with a median age of 29’, while the country’s more than 400 million millennials accounted for a third of its population and 46 per cent of its workforce. ‘In India’, Morgan Stanley concluded, ‘millennials will certainly make an economic mark, and investors and industry players who are ready to meet their needs — and offer them more — stand to benefit’ (Morgan Stanley, 2017).

The idea of a rising, economically propitious ‘millennial’ youth market was, however, open to question. According to their detractors, for instance, Strauss and Howe’s concept of a new, ‘millennial’ generation — together with their over-arching theory of ‘generational cycles’ - lacked intellectual rigour, and was overly impressionistic and generalised (see Chapter 1). Moreover, like the excitement that had surrounded the rise of ‘teenage’ spending 50 years before, much of the marketing enthusiasm for ‘millennials’ was hyperbolic and sometimes facile. Certainly, some young people were relatively prosperous, and the youth market could sometimes offer big returns. But any notion of a uniform generation of ‘millennial’ consumers overlooked the complex differences and inequalities - in terms of, for example, class, gender, and ethnicity — that characterised young people’s lives, both within and between societies. Nevertheless, the concept of generationally distinctive ‘millennials’ was widely espoused, and often found a ready audience. In part, this was indebted to the huge social changes wrought by the explosive growth of digital and online technologies — trends in which young people were often seen as torchbearers.

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