With all that’s been written and discussed about the Millennial Generation, you might think there’s nothing left to say.
But, lo and behold, a recent essay on Slate.com argues that thinking of Millennials as a generation is fallacious. The piece goes even further by asserting that generations, in themselves, are simply not “a thing.”
While generations and generational differences may be attractive concepts, in “Can We Please Stop Talking About Generations as if They Are a Thing,” David Costanza, an associate professor of organizational sciences at George Washington University and a senior consortium fellow for the U.S Army Research Institute, writes that “solid evidence supporting generations, their characteristics, or even their existence, is lacking. In short, the science shows that generations are not a thing.”
As the idea of generations and generational characteristics often appear in the work we do as marketers and market researchers, Costanza’s claim is worthy of note.
A False Attribution of Cause?
One of Costanza’s main arguments is that we wrongly attribute the cause of generational characteristics. We might observe, for example, that Millennials show less job satisfaction than Gen Xers. Our mistake, according to Costanza, is to attribute the cause of this dissatisfaction to a shared set of references and experiences, e.g., Millennials being overly pampered in their childhood.
Instead, it’s attributable to their life-stage. “Early in their careers,” Costanza writes, Xers were also less satisfied with their jobs than were Baby Boomers.”
To the degree that Costanza recognizes generations, it’s as if they are fixed stages through which people move, shaping their attitudes and behaviors far more than whatever experiences or cultural references they bring to that time in their life.
Inadequate Statistical Methodologies?
Costanza moves on to critique the methodologies employed when defining generational characteristics, citing statistical challenges that make it problematic:
“…mathematically separating age, period, and cohort effects is very difficult because they are inherently confounded with one another. Their linear dependency creates what is known as an identification problem, and unless one has access to multiple longitudinal panels… it is impossible to statistically isolate the unique effect of any one factor…”
From a Marketing Perspective, is Costanza Missing the Point?
“Can We Please Stop Talking About Generations as if They Are a Thing” makes some legitimate points. It may, indeed, be true that the dominant influence of a certain set of attitudes and behaviors is determined more by life-stage and circumstance than by shared generational experiences.
However, that’s only part of what we look for as marketers and researchers. Sure, Millennials may be no more narcissistic than their Boomer forebears, but how does that narcissism express itself? More to the point: how does it affect what they buy?
And when we address Millennials through marketing materials, what language and cultural references should we employ? To use the verbal, visual and musical grammar of the 1970s might not be the wisest choice even if “fundamentally” Millennials are “just like” their parents when they were young.
The More Things Change, the More They…
Despite his well-argued essay, Costanza seems to emphasize a point that is only marginally relevant to the pragmatic use of the concept of generations. At its base, his concern is with what remains the same within a sea of change.
Ours is more with what changes. Those changes may indeed appear shallower and more malleable than the fixed life-stage attitudes to which Costanza refers, but they are also what makes the world of commerce go ‘round.
They’re more interesting, too. From the broadest perspective it may be true that nothing ever changes, that people are people, that there’s nothing new under the sun. But it’s not particularly enlightening.
The real engine for marketing action is in understanding the details and color of each generational story, those particular experiences and references that generations share, and which inform their purchase decisions. Therefore, the real value for market researchers is in being able to provide these vibrant and nuanced consumer stories.
And that is what makes the “Millennial Generation” something real and worthy of continued exploration.