“Information on demand, in a very viral fashion, can occupy you for hours. I spend five-plus hours a day on a computer, read countless blogs, and can squander hours on YouTube, Wikipedia, or any number of engrossing sites. I’ve got a pretty busy and demanding schedule, and I don’t sleep much.”
— Max Cho, 15, Shorecrest High School sophomore
They’re a marketer’s dream — young, plugged in, consumer-driven and numerous.
There’s just one problem with the so-called millennials: figuring out how they think.
It’s a pressing question for anyone trying to court the huge demo known variously as echo boomers and Gen Y — the group ranging in age from 13 to their late 20s.
Market researchers say there’s something fundamentally different about these tech-savvy millennials, steeped from birth in a fast-moving world of digital data. The effects show up most strongly among younger ones.
“To say teens think differently than adults isn’t just an old adage; modern technology has literally changed the ways teens’ brains are wired,” said Gary Rudman of GTR Consulting, who has spent his career studying teen and young-adult markets. His clients include Coca-Cola, Nike, Microsoft Xbox and Yahoo!
Millennials are the second-largest generation in U.S. history — lagging only the baby boomers — and therefore a ripe target for everyone from college recruiters to fashion retailers.
One measure of their influence is the 2006 TRU Study, which found that U.S. teens last year spent $179 billion.
That works out to $102 a week for the average teen, including purchases they made with their parents’ money — say, picking up a quart of milk for Mom.
They also have enormous sway over their parents’ spending — what toothpaste families buy, even what kind of cars they drive, said Michael Wood, vice president at TRU (Teen Research Unlimited).
Apart from their sheer numbers, millennials are prized for their ability to frame the pop-culture agenda.
“These guys are sort of the trendsetters in our population,” Rudman said. “It is critical for marketers to pay attention to this population, because things are changing so quickly, and if you don’t change quickly you’ll be left in the dust.”
Hoping for more insight than he could get by crunching numbers, Rudman embarked last year on a project to find out “where teens’ heads are.”
His company picked the brains of 100 U.S. teens who were screened to represent socially active trend-leaders. They ranged in age from 14 to 18 — what Rudman calls the “bull’s-eye” of the millennial generation.
The project, based on interviews and teens’ journals, wasn’t designed to be scientifically accurate but to yield anecdotal insights. Rudman summarized the findings in “gTrend 2006,” a hardcover report the firm sells for $4,000 — presentation included.
Rudman calls these teens the “flux gen” because their culture is driven by ever-accelerating technological change. It took a generation for TV to become a household fixture, but much of today’s technology is here and gone in a matter of months, forcing teens to adapt on the fly.
Instant messaging is a case in point. Rudman said it was teens’ favorite way of communicating — last year.
“It’s now kind of turning to MySpace,” he said. “MySpace is a bit more three-dimensional.”
One of the teens in the study, identified only as “Rubin, 18,” put it this way: “Techy stuff is what everyone likes. The iPod craze has taken over at our school. I barely see people with CD players; they have been replaced with MP3 players.”
Understanding the millennial mind — its penchant for connectivity and customization — has larger implications than selling sneakers and cell-phone minutes. It also affects such basic issues as how to structure classroom learning.
“The whole (educational) system is archaic and it has to be rebuilt,” said Gen Y expert Richard Sweeney, a librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Sweeney said the traditional classroom lecture is at odds with the choice, interactivity and rapid response millennials have come to expect from the tech world.
College-age millennials especially dislike being limited to one course taught by one professor. To get around this, they sometimes enroll in distance-learning courses even when they live on campus.
“These kids are saying to us, ‘We want alternatives in the way we learn,’ ” he said.
Sweeney became a millennial buff seven years ago after noticing a generational shift in his own family. His four older kids were typical Gen X’ers, but the younger two had different behaviors and expectations.
“There has been something startling that has happened to this generation,” Sweeney said.
Intrigued, he began reading everything he could find — from mainstream-media articles to academic studies — to figure out why.
He connected the dots to create a generational snapshot that he shares — with youth participation — in focus groups with libraries, churches and other groups trying to connect with Gen Y.
The American Library Association, eager to woo young patrons, invited him to speak at its recent conference in Seattle.
Not only are millennials socially interconnected and geared to instant results, but evidence suggests they have different personalities than their elders.
Sweeney illustrates this with findings from the Northeastern Ohio College of Medicine, where millennials were found to differ significantly from Gen X medical students in 10 of 16 traits on a standard personality test.
Millennials scored higher on warmth, abstract reasoning, emotional stability, rule-consciousness, social boldness, sensitivity, apprehension, openness to change and perfectionism. Gen X’ers scored higher on self-reliance.
“These are lifelong, cultural changes,” Sweeney said. “You don’t change your personality very much once it’s formed.”
Millennials are rugged individuals in one sense — how they spend their time and money. They shop from a wide range of brands and like to personalize their gear.
“They have no need to conform to a generational norm,” Sweeney said. “They’re very independent in their consumer habits.”
Case in point: Unlike the baby boomers, who rallied around the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the millennials have no unifying, generational music. Rap, classical — anything goes, Sweeney said.
“The trend,” he said, “is that there isn’t a trend. This generation is all about choice — being able to find something and make it your own.”
Choice offers a sense of control to overburdened teens who have been forced to grow up and focus on goal-driven career choices at ever-younger ages — a trend Rudman calls the “mid-pubescent crisis.”
They’ve marched all their lives to the drumbeat that good grades lead to a good college, which leads to a great career. Rudman said they may be in for a rude awakening.
“It’s not that easy in the real world,” he said. “You can’t press a button and have access to everything you want.”
THE MILLENNIAL PULSE
“I chat so much online, right now my time on my buddy list says I have been online for three days! That’s how much I love the Internet. The best thing is being able to reach your friends at the click of a mouse.”
— Zuri, 17
“I spend about 20 to 25 hours on the computer a week. I go to myspace.com, urbanfreeflow.com, check my e-mail, and talk on AOL Instant Messenger. I go to myspace.com to see what’s going on with people.”
— Blake, 15
“Why should I memorize dates for history (class)? I can just Google it.”
— Leslie, 15
“I really, really don’t like free time. I love to have every minute where I know what I’m going to do.”
— Robin, 17
“School is a major source of stress. One of the main reasons why school is so frustrating is because a lot of the work you do in school affects your future, and everyone wants to do well.”
— Taylor, 15
“I am looking forward to being retired and having a lot of money. I do not want to worry about anything.”
— Seamus, 17
— Source: gTrend Report 2006, by GTR Consulting
was 1 when Super Nintendo was released and the CD-ROM was invented.
was 5 when the Internet entered almost every home and PlayStation was released.
was 8 when Windows 98 was launched.
was 11 when PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox were released and DSL gained popularity.
Source: Young Adult Library Services Association, citing Pew Internet and Life Reports and Entertainment Software Association