Buzzwords Like Millennials Describing 20 Year Age Cohorts Are Bullshit

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At some point in time, we decided to begin branding arbitrary age cohorts (and ranges!) with labels. Baby Boomers (18 year cohort) are people born between 1946 – 1964, giving an age range between 51 and 70 as of 2016. Millennials (23 year cohort) are people born between 1981-2004, giving an age range of 12-35. Not to mention the fact that not everyone can even agree on these unstandardized, randomly assigned dates (if you Google these terms you’ll see plenty of inconsistency).

And with this, the cottage industry of pandering to, making fun of and putting humans in (useless) segments based on year they were born began.

Authors write books “explaining” generations. And it’s just so cringeworthy. It’s either a marketer or media analyst awkwardly explaining passing fads of young people (see this one describing millennials, which includes the word selfie of course). Almost universally these regurgitate faux trends perpetuated by other media. Or perhaps even worse, someone from the generation writes a book thinking they have blinding insights to share from their limited years on the planet interacting with their small group of friends and amateurish sociological take based on a few hours of online research.

Bloggers and media write stories about millennials / trend pieces because they know humans are narcissistic and enjoy reading about themselves, or to create fear in others (hey old people, if you don’t read our story about millennials your brand is going to miss out on the latest trend). Or even obnoxious generational bashing which of course is a mature and adult way to conduct reporting, for example this story in the Washington Post leads with:

Dina ElBoghdady and I wrote this morning about how Millennials, the largest and most diverse generation in U.S. history, are poised to impact the housing market — if, that is, they’d all finally move out of their parents’ homes.

Because all 20 and 30-somethings live at home with their parents right? Wait, even their data referenced later in that story shows how few millennials actually live with their parents anymore (especially after 25 when it drops to below 20%). But easier to say everyone is the same because that’s the narrative. But what is the reality?

A ~20 year ago cohort is too large to mean anything.

A generation of marketers totally out of their element and journalists being told to write stories on buzzwords are the ones driving this arbitrary breakdown of our culture and world. But there’s no reason for it and it should be actively questioned (and in my opinion, thrown out).

Social trends now move so fast single moments of significance are less defining, even at the time seemingly important ones. Analysis of millennials for any sort of shared preference will of course appear accurate if you brand it with attributes that you could generalize to any humans. But in reality marketing to millennials is the marketing equivalent of describing someone via their astrological sign.

Psychographics show far more in common than year born / aging demographic breakdown of age range (this is old school thinking). Look, if you can target by not just arbitrary age range as defined by buzzword (who cares really) but by people who live in a certain area, are married and are interested in weight lifting and tropical fish you’d have to be either moronic or lazy to think stepping back and targeting a random 20 year cohort is a good idea.

Facebook’s ad targeting shows how absurd it now is to break up the world by age range:

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As for marketing to specific age ranges? Sure, there are some product categories with immutable market segments for a certain demographic. But labels aren’t required to market to these groups effectively. Like, arthritis meds you’d probably always want to target people ages of between 30 and 60, the average onset of RA According to the Arthritis Foundation. But if you are just a brand saying “we need to target millennials” for some reason I can guarantee if you drill down on the “why” you don’t actually need to reach a buzzword age range to accomplish what you need.

In fact, I would go as far as to bet against any company or startup that has in their pitch deck they are “going after millennials” because they are building a business based on a buzzword, not something that matters. The world simply isn’t broken down this way anymore, there are far too many interest categories now, passions we work on in our free time, types of products we’re interested in.

Or, as my friend Lucas summarizes quite nicely:

Does it really make sense to speak in absolutes about a demographic that makes up 20% of the total population of the United States? I calculated this percentage using data from the most recent census, via census.gov. If you disagree with my math and can prove it, email me at info@officemalarkey.com and I’ll buy you a cheeseburger.

Common sense would normally indicate that drawing conclusions about such a loosely defined group of folks is at best “pushing it,” and at worst completely ludicrous. There’s simply no way to make an accurate, universally applicable statement about that many people based solely on a 20ish-year age range.

…I don’t think this lazy habit of over-generalization comes from a desire to marginalize millennials, but I do believe it’s a broader way people use to try and make sense of a technology-driven world. In most analyses of millennials, the way technology shapes and controls their environment is key to understanding whatever point is being made about them. This overused, way-too-broad categorization provides a way to add a human layer to the discussion around those who have been born into a world where technology and the internet automate our existence. Millennial is simply a conduit for a larger discussion on technology and society, but that doesn’t make you sound like any less of a clueless jabroni when you use the term without adding further qualifiers.

For your moment of Zen: I’ve been ranting on how useless the buzzword ‘millennials’ is for some time now. Enjoy scrolling through 100s of my Tweets on this subject here.

image credit: Shutterstock