It’s (still) hard out there for a millennial

Does the ‘it’ generation have a PR problem? People do love to talk trash about today’s youth. We explore the reasons why, and whether it will ever stop.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on PR Daily in December.

The oldest members of Generation Y turn 33 next year.

To put that into perspective, Alexander the Great conquered the world before the age of 33. Amelia Earhart was 33 when she flew across the Atlantic. And by time he was crucified at age 33, Jesus of Nazareth had altered the course of history.

In other words, today’s millennials aren’t kids anymore. In fact, they’re the it generation, and with 1.7 billion members, they now outnumber Baby Boomers.

So why do they have such a PR problem?

“This is a generation that gets pounded in the press,” said Alex Abraham, director of the 8095 Insights Group, a part of Edelman PR that studies millennials. “It’s being labeled in a variety of ways, and it isn’t necessarily fair.”

They’re deemed lazy, selfish, spoiled, entitled, cheap, murderous, despotic—you get the point. It seems no matter how much they age, there’s no love for millennials.

Abraham, a member of Generation X (those born 1965–79), thinks there’s a lot to like about Generation Y. “They’re just going through a tough time,” he said.

Tough out there for a millennial

Although the Great Recession touched members of every generation, it ravaged millennials. According to data compiled by the 8095 Insights Group, the unemployment rate for young people in the U.S. hovers above 12 percent. New figures released today put the overall national rate at 7.7 percent. On average, millennials hold about $28,500 in student loan debt.

Even worse, Americans younger than 35 saw their net worth plummet by more than 37 percent between 2005 and 2010; the net worth of those older than 65 declined by just 13 percent during that time.

“They’re growing up during one of the hardest economic times, and they’re finding ways through it,” Abraham said.

To soldier on in this harsh economic climate, millennials have adopted an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit, said Abraham. Nearly half (48 percent) say owning a business is a life goal, according to research from 8095 Insights Group.

Their older colleagues, however, often interpret this gumption as ambition—ambition on steroids, in fact—and they find it off-putting, even threatening.

The problem with millennial research

Although ambition feeds into the negative perception of millennials, Abraham said much of the lousy press stems from the countless studies done on this age group. Abraham even called millennials the most analyzed generation ever.

He should know. The 8095 Insights Group launched in 2010 to study the millennial generation. (Born ’80 to ’95—get it?) This week, the team unveiled the results of its latest survey of more than 4,000 young people in 11 countries.

It’s easy to see why there’s so much curiosity about them: They’re the first inherently digital generation, and they possess enormous buying power.

According to the 8095 study, millennials will outpace Boomer earnings by the year 2018. Plus, they affect how their friends spend money, or so they think. Roughly three-fourths of respondents said they influence purchase decisions of other generations.

The problem is, studies that explore the millennial generation tend to lump them into one group, but Abraham warned against looking at them as a monolithic bloc. “They’re in profoundly different life stages,” said Abraham, who noted that the youngest millennial is 18, while the oldest will be 33 next month.

That means a person in his early 30s is filed into the same group as a college student in his late teens. Although they’re both millennials, a generation gap almost certainly exists.

Abraham said the 8095 Insights Group study addresses this concern by drawing upon the common traits and nuances that connect the more than a billion people in this generation as opposed to looking for absolute truths about them.

Implications for brands

Naturally, the connections that 8095 draws in its study are useful for marketers.

“There is no silver bullet to engaging millennials,” Abraham made clear, “but we know there are things that rise to the top” when it comes to capturing their attention.

For instance, brands that communicate a purpose and a cause often break through, as do companies that offer humorous content and share their backstory.

Engaging millennials in “surround sound” is also important, said Abraham. “It’s not all about digital,” he explained. “They want offline conversations as well.”

Abraham added: “Overall, they demand value: How are you adding value to their lives?”

The following SlideShare presentation delivers the results of the 8095 research:

‘Edging’ closer to the next generation

Millennials are the “it” generation now, but very soon marketers and media outlets will start discussing the youngsters hot on their heels. However, Abraham thinks studies that focus on future generations will shift; it’s likely that researchers won’t group people into such large segments.

“Moving forward, we may need to shorten the age groups,” he said.

If millennials think the future brings less criticism, they had better think again.

Recently, brand consultancy The Sound Research heralded the coming of Generation Edge—those born after 1995. In a press release, the company’s president Ian Pierpoint said “Gen-Edge” is “anchored in a new reality.”

“Edgers” don’t expect things to come easy, according to the press release. They don’t feel entitled, and they’re willing to apply a little elbow grease “to make things happen”—unlike their cousins in that other generation.

That might hurt, if such criticism weren’t all too familiar for millennials.

RELATED: 25 things young professionals must know before 25

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