A couple of weeks back, Flavorwire was invited to attend a rather curious event sponsored by Ford. It was a panel discussion called “Hipsters Hate Cars,” promising to “use data, trends and expertise to show that Millennials aren’t just a bunch of PBR-drinking hipsters who spin vinyl and ride bikes.” Your correspondent didn’t end up attending, mainly because… well, because it was a panel discussion sponsored by Ford called “Hipsters Hate Cars,” but I did read the subsequent report in Salon with interest, especially the comments from the keynote speaker, one Jason Dorsey. Dorsey is a consultant who calls himself “The Gen Y Guy,” and reportedly told the panel that “[Millennials] don’t want commitment. They drop in and out of experiences. They can’t wear a shirt or blouse if it’s photographed. The worst fear of millennials is wearing the same dress twice on two different [social networks].” If this all sounds to you a bit like Smitty from Mad Men talking about what kids want, well, you’re not the only one — so Flavorwire tracked down Dorsey to ask him about stereotyping, data analysis, and how effectively one can ascribe characteristics to an entire generation.
Flavorwire: How does one get to be a millennials expert?
Jason Dorsey: My personal path was starting out as a millennial. That certainly helped. I wrote a best-selling book when I was 18 years old, and spent the next seven years traveling all over, talking with millennials about how to transition from high school and college into the world of work. I spoke with about 500,000 people my own age. Through that I realized there wasn’t conversation around data that would help people with that conversation. There was always anecdotal stories but people weren’t really focusing on data. So we started to say, “Well, what data is out there, and can we piece it together and really try to understand the story of millennials?” So I wrote some other books and then kind of went down the data path, of saying, “Well, let’s go out and find data that people are creating in a bunch of different ways, and talk about it.” Most of the data we review for people is private data — very large companies want us to look at their sales data, or employment data, or other data they’ve paid for, and [want us] to let them know what to do about it.
So you focus largely on selling to millennials, then?
No, we look at employment, we look at sales and marketing, and we also look at some of the larger life-stage trends, which are really important to us — things like marriage, moving out [of parents’ homes], political trends… just kind of these broader views — and [we] try to understand if they’re really representative of the generation… If you have certain views about adulthood, they wouldn’t only affect what you buy, but [also] the kind of jobs you look for, the relationship you have with your parents, how engaged you are in your community. [So] we look at some of the broader themes as well — it just happens to be that a lot of time, people are looking at the consumer side of it.
When you say “millennials,” what exactly do you mean? How do you define that demographic?
In the US, when we look at a generation, the lens or the filter that we bring to it is two things, primarily. One is birth years, because generations are essentially a birth cohort, and the other thing we look at is geography, because we find that when you change geography, a lot of the characteristics shift. When you look at, say, millennials in the US, while they’re similar to millennials in India, there are also some really important cultural differences that tend to be more geographically bound. When we talk about millennials in the States, the birth years we use are approximately 1977 to 1995, and the big events that are the bookends… [For] the oldest millennials, like myself, it’s the Challenger explosion — many of us had to watch that in school. And then the youngest millennials, the last event, the [defining] event for the whole generation, was September 11 . So we feel that there’s a hard stop at 1995, because if you were born after 1995, it’s very difficult to remember September 11 and put it in any bigger context, political or otherwise.
So that’s 18 years of births. It’s a pretty massive demographic. Why do you feel you can draw any meaningful generalizations about such a diverse group of people?
What we look at is this kind of consistency. We still see a lot of consistency across that span. Generations aren’t perfect. They’re not a box. You’re not going to get 80 million very diverse people to sit within it. So what we’re kind of looking at are these larger, more consistent trends — [millennials’] relationship with technology, maybe views about parenting, especially how they were raised. There still tends to be a lot of consistency. If you look at other generations, like the baby boomers, that’s a huge group, 1946-64. It’s not as much of a science as people would like to say it is; it’s more like clues, looking at, over this 18-year period, are we still finding enough consistency to say they’re part of the same generation, or are they so different that clearly they’re not? And [1977-1995] is a really good number that we’re comfortable with.
Salon quotes you, from the “Hipsters Hate Cars” panel, as saying, “Millenials don’t want commitment, they drop in and out of experiences, they can’t wear a shirt or a blouse if it’s been photographed before… The worst fear of millennials is wearing the same dress twice on two [different] social networks.” Is that not some pretty shallow stereotyping?
[Laughs] No, it’s not stereotyping. I think what we’re seeing [is that] people are saying, “Well, millennials, why are they not buying cars?” I’m trying to remember if that was an exact quote or not, so I can’t speak to that directly. But the concept that millennials are wading into commitment later is absolutely true. There’s no question about it. We’re seeing it in everything from willingness to switch jobs [to] delaying marriage, which is a major commitment that we keep pushing back. We see it in having children, and all kinds of long-term commitments… the idea of postponing and waiting, entering into that and easing into that later in life. Could you say it’s shallow or not shallow? It depends on what you think the reasons are. But in terms of the behavior we’re witnessing, absolutely.
I’ll tell you what my problem with this idea is. To me, it reinforces stereotypes of young people being wary of commitment and superficial. I think millennials have a lot to worry about, but wearing the same dress twice on two social networks is not foremost amongst those things.
OK, I agree with you. In the context of the event, the idea that image is really important to millennials is absolutely true. Some of the things we’re talking about are clearly about life stage, and I think that’s an important point — they’re more about life stage than the generation. Almost all young people go through a period of rebellion, they go through a period of trying on new identities, they go through a period of testing their boundaries. That’s no different here, but what we’re seeing is that [period] extending later in actual years into adulthood than it had previously. So when you think about things like wearing the same dress twice on a social network, while relative to shelter and food and these kind of bigger issues, clearly it’s not ranked high on the list, from a consumer standpoint, it is something that brands have to consider. If I have a different relationship with things I want to buy, that does affect how [brands] want to present them to me.
OK, but what millennials want out of life and what millennials want to buy are not one and the same thing?
Do you feel that this generation is fundamentally different to any other generation?
I think there are some differences that we’re seeing now, but in terms of being fundamentally different, no. People are people. Most people try to avoid pain and move toward pleasure. Most of us are seeking to be happy. We want to fit in and be valued. Those kind of things are true with every generation. Do I think that [because] we’ve come up at this time, that we have more choices than ever before? Absolutely. Do I think that we’re entering adulthood later than ever before? Without question. Do I think that’s going to affect us as we continue to get older? Absolutely. But to say that one generation is fundamentally different to another, especially right now where our oldest millennials are 34, 35-ish, is a pretty bold statement that I think I can’t make.
You say you’re deriving these ideas about entering adulthood and making commitments later from data, but does that data address in any way why those things might be?
A little bit. When we look at what we call the “gateway markers to adulthood,” which means these traditional checkboxes, if you will, of saying, “I am moving toward becoming an adult,” we look at the age when you enter the workforce, which is older than it’s ever been; the age at which you graduate from college or university, which is older than it’s ever been; the age at which you get married for the first time, which is the oldest it’s been since we’ve been keeping records; and the age at which you have your first child, which is also older than it’s ever been. So you see the shift back of these traditional markers, and when you see that, you take a step back and say, “Well, OK, why is that happening?” And it’s happening for a variety of reasons. Some of it is economic, no doubt about it. Some of it is parental, you know, the way our parents are raising us. And some of it is just societal — the idea that it’s now socially acceptable not to get married until your 30s is really new for a lot of parts of the country. Really new. In certain urban areas that are very well educated — New York, Portland, Seattle — the idea of staying in school a lot longer time, getting married later, having a career, and then having kids is more normalized. But now that whole notion is spreading, and that is a pretty big shift.
I think people are very keen to throw a lot of labels at this generation, to say they think about themselves a lot more, they won’t commit, they have no responsibility. Obviously this is only empirical and anecdotal, but I think it rather sells this generation short.
I agree with you, and I think you’ve kind of hit on a key point, which is that whenever people compare this generation to something, they’re always bringing their personal experience to that comparison. When I talk to someone who says, “Oh, this generation, they’re always on their mobile phones, what’s wrong with them?,” I think, “Well, if y’all had mobile phones then, you might have always been on the phone!” So it’s really an unfair comparison when you’re looking at these kind of behaviors. It’s a little bit apples and oranges in these kinds of ways, especially the external things people are keen to point to.
Do you feel any sort of responsibility to challenge these stereotypes if you’re casting yourself as a millennials expert?
I certainly do. I think I have to challenge them to find out what’s real and what’s perception. And sometimes I don’t like what I find. I mean, I am a millennial. When you dig into it, you find that a lot of millennials really do act entitled. They really do show up and have these massive expectations and are not willing to work at [things]. You know, as a millennial, you see that and you’re like, “Really?” But on the flipside, you go out there and you realize that doesn’t reflect the whole generation. In fact, the group that’s most offended by this sense of entitlement are the millennials who don’t feel entitled. Like myself. We feel like the entitled millennials are giving us a bad rap! [Laughs]
But is that just a fairly small, highly visible part of the demographic? People tend to want to conflate millennials with images of hipsters riding fixies around Williamsburg, which in terms of looking at the entire cohort is a fairly small sample.
People want to latch onto the thing that creates the biggest emotional reaction. When you say, “Are millennials entitled?,” people are quick to jump on that bandwagon, because they’ve always met someone like that. But to say that we’re all like that, not only is it wrong, it’s unfair. I feel it’s important to me to get out there and say, “Yes, there are these characteristics that we see virtually everywhere we go, but that doesn’t mean that every single millennial has [those], and in fact, there’s a very vocal group that doesn’t.” You’re talking 80 million people, the most diverse generation in US history, more of us graduating college than ever before… to try to put us all in one box, it doesn’t work. It’s a failed methodology. But what I do think is important is that we try to dig into the data and see what trends emerge and to be able to speak to those trends so people can be more informed.
Sure, but is that what you tell companies?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I tell a lot of companies what they don’t want to hear [laughs heartily]. I tell some of them that the hiring structures they have don’t attract the millennials that they want. With others, we talk about how the buying experience is a real turn-off. And others, we say, “Wow, y’all have nailed this piece in a really fabulous way, and you didn’t even mean to do it! That’s awesome!” So for us, trying to be candid with people who want answers is our duty.