The Death Of The Millennial: Or Were They Never Born?

A useful tool for any marketer seeking to focus their marketing on a key audience or consumer is the use of demographics. In fact, the use of demographics expands well beyond the marketing field, with mass media, sales teams, economists and policy makers all adopting this form of categorisation and differentiation.

When it comes to millennials, you will often see marketers aiming to tap into this modern demographic, with the term becoming something of a buzzword in recent years. But what is a millennial? What, if anything, makes them different from other marketing demographics? Or are they simply a figment of the marketers’ creative imagination? This week OTB is delving head first into this 21st century phenomenon…

What is a millennial?

So, what is a millennial? Despite its widespread usage as a cultural term, it is often difficult to define what a millennial means for marketers, and how this impacts your strategy in real terms. According, and most broad understandings of the term, the word millennial denotes ‘a person born in the 1980s or 1990s.’ It is generally presumed that this categorisation allows for a number of suppositions about the behaviours, values and habits of this young adult generation as consumers.

According to banking giant Goldman Sachs, ‘millennials have grown up in a time of rapid change, giving them a set of priorities and expectations sharply different from previous generations’, and are in fact the biggest generation in U.S history at 92 million people, far exceeding previous generations such as Generation X of the 60s and 70s or the Baby Boomers of the post-Second World War era.

According to a report by The White House, millennials are also highly important not just due to their high volume, but due to their characteristics and ability to contribute to the economy. It argues ‘this is the first generation to have had access to the Internet during their formative years, [they] are the most diverse and educated generation to date.

For marketers, this has meant creating specific strategies which aim to target this young, dynamic, educated, technology-savvy cohort and tap into their huge power and influence as consumers. According to an infographic by, millennials are estimated to hold over 1 trillion dollars’ worth of direct buying power, with almost 50% of millennials more likely to purchase from a company if that purchase supports a cause. With such large scale influence in the consumer and corporate social responsibility arenas, it is little surprise that marketers have sought to engage with this powerful group.

The death, or perhaps un-birth, of the millennial?

Yet despite this widespread recognition of and research into the power of the millennial demographic, this week influential marketing expert Mark Ritson, branding professor at Melbourne Business School and columnist for Marketing Week, has argued that the millennial demographic is no more, and, in fact, most likely never was.

Ritson tells of how a recent tweet by Phil Barden, managing director at consulting firm Decode Marketing, questioned ‘what is all this Gen Y, Z, millennials bullsh*t? Brains don’t change in a decade. We’re still driven by the same goals as our ancestors.’ Ritson argues that in fact ‘the “unique characteristics” that define millennials are the […] same traits we were ascribing to Generation Y not that long ago, and Generation X before that.’

He claims that this failure to acknowledge similarities between the various demographic groups that have existed throughout recent consumer history, and at the same time presuming that all millennials are characterised by an identical set of traits, is having serious repercussions for marketing. Ritson argues ‘the minute marketers start thinking all millennials are the same, they reject the behavioural and attitudinal nuances of a hugely heterogeneous population and collapse them into one big, generic mess.’ This generalisation reduces the ability to effectively personalise marketing campaigns, to target other consumer groups with equally influential buying power, and reduces the agility of brands to engage with their audience on multiple levels.

Who’ll be next?

Ritson concludes that the only way marketing will move on from the millennial demographic hype is when, sure enough, another new, dynamic, stand-out-from-the-crowd demographic comes along. But what will this new generation look like? Although this new demographic has yet to emerge as an influential force in marketing and society more generally, arguably it won’t be long until they do. As economic highlights of children born after 2000, ‘the oldest of them aren’t that many years from entering the full-time workforce.’

There is some level of disagreement as to what this post-millennial generation will be called. Some have suggested the somewhat predictable Generation Z, while others such as the American Marketing Association (AMA) have coined the term ‘Generation 9/11’. Making the case that most demographic labels often earned their title due to a formative event of their time, AMA argues that the attacks of September 11thfundamentally altered the world in which the post 2001 generation would live. This will therefore impact upon their values, attitudes and lifestyles – potentially making them more grounded in reality, more risk averse and more reliant technology than ever before.

Whatever you choose to call the upcoming generation, there are important insights to be taken from the role of demographics in marketing, the continued strength of the millennial as a focus for many brands, and Ritson’s warning against the dangers of over-generalisation and mass marketing assumptions. With the birth of ‘Generation 9/11’ as key consumers just around the corner, it might be time for the millennials to move out of the spotlight and for marketers to adjust themselves to the new kids on the block.

The Death Of The Millennial: Or Were They Never Born?