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Millennials – Generation “Why?”

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | September 8, 2015
The “Me Me Me Generation” & Our Community
By Shane Wilson – Special Projects Coordinator
At Emporia Main Street, we have daily discussions about how to move the community forward in an onslaught of ever-changing demographics, trends, generational tendencies, business models – you name it. I wanted to take this week’s newsletter as an opportunity to discuss millennials and their impact on the community. This won’t be a typical discussion simply about who they are and how they purchase, but more so a dialogue about why they are the way they are (and will continue to be), what issues this creates in our community, the underlying problems that can effect your business, and finally some ways to address these issues. As a millennial myself, I can directly identify with these concepts and can see the implications unfold on a daily basis in interactions with my peers.
This isn’t to say millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are a generation of which to “steer clear” or simply shrug off. Nearly 80 million people encapsulate this generation, often labeled the “Me Me Me Generation;” they are the 20-somethings who will have the biggest impact on all facets of this community for the foreseeable future. Understanding them at their core makes it easier to see why they do the things they do, why they sometimes fall short of societal expectations, and why it is so important to start (if you already haven’t) catering to their often misunderstood purpose. Below is a progression, laid out as logically as I could muster, of a few things specific to this generation:
  1. This is the roadblock.
  2. Here’s the why behind it (and the corroborating data to back it up)
  3. Here’s how it can effect you
  4. Here are some ways to combat the issues and turn the roadblock into a functioning thoroughfare
Roadblock:  Millennials are “starting” their adult lives later than ever before
Why:  “We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls ‘the changing timetable for adulthood.'” The concept is that millennials are in what’s being referred to as “Emerging Adulthood,” a new stage of growth and development that comes after adolescence and before true adulthood. It’s why so many young adults delay starting families, delay engaging in traditional long-term investments, delay getting on familiar career paths, and even delay relationship building. From one study:
The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.
Effect: Businesses that offer “traditional” life cycle products and services are currently seeing (and will continue to see) a delay in their customer base because of these issues. It’s a bit of a generalization, but if an entire generation is waiting to start a family and get married until their late 20s/early 30s, it’s easy to see why there will be a gap or drop in business between this generation and the previous one. Businesses that aren’t well diversified in their product and service offerings or aren’t well versed in reaching out and marketing to this already-limited demographic will have a hard time staying relevant.
Combat: Understand who your customer is. This has been examined in previous newsletters, but it’s hyper-important to note this again and again. Also understand that your business is not for everyone. If you spend too much time targeting individuals or “pockets” of consumers who have a hard time identifying with your business or the things you offer, you’re losing out on time that could have spent targeting your true consumer base. With millennials, as is commonly known, time is of the essence!
Roadblock: Millennials are an incredibly self-absorbed generation
Why: From the National Institute of Mental Health:
N.I.M.H. scientists also found a time lag between the growth of the limbic system, where emotions originate, and of the prefrontal cortex, which manages those emotions. The limbic system explodes during puberty, but the prefrontal cortex keeps maturing for another 10 years. Giedd said it is logical to suppose – and for now, neuroscientists have to make a lot of logical suppositions – that when the limbic system is fully active but the cortex is still being built, emotions might outweigh ration­ality.
In a culture where emotion takes precedent over rational thought and reaction, it’s easy to see why it’s harder to motivate this generation to do things for the common good when it might be counter to selfish desires. This, too, is generalized, but we see it at Main Street on a consistent basis – people want to do what they want to do, regardless of the societal and community impacts those wants may have. There’s nothing wrong with trying to get ahead and give yourself every possible advantage in having a successful life – the issue lies in its negative response to the community: apathy, disregard for communal vision, and a lack of civic duty or responsibility.
Effect: It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to identify and retain quality employees and volunteers in this community. It’s even harder to determine if an employee or volunteer is bringing a negative effect to the people they surround and become toxic to your base of advocates, which is just as dangerous. This generation often has its eyes set on personal gratification and satisfaction while others are left holding the reins, often doing way too much work for far too little payout. 3 out of 5 millennials stay with their current company for less than 3 years. Also, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that Americans ages 20 to 34 are less likely to volunteer for charitable causes than those 35 to 64. It’s a simple equation – less people willing to do good work for the common good equals less common good. The long term consequences of this mindset could be devastating for a community, just like ours, that really depends on purposeful volunteer intervention.
Combat: Spend your time wisely identifying your core employees and helpers. If they’re millennials, hold onto them for dear life, as they might be few and far between. Empower them to be successful which, in turn, will make you successful. Incentivize qualified prospects to not only join you and your business’ vision but also to stay and perpetuate that mission. Find out what makes them tick, how to energize them, and understand what they expect of you.
Roadblock: Millennials are the most heavily peer-influenced generation yet
Why: G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, first noted the presence of a stage of development after childhood and before adulthood – adolescence. In adolescents, he examined greater susceptibility to media influences and an overreliance on peer relationships. This trend has extended to those in “emerging adulthood;” never has there been a time, especially in the digital age, where peer influence is such an embedded part of both generic and overarching lifestyle decisions.
Effect: Word-of-mouth reputation will become increasingly important. Peer influence, especially in digital format, can make or break trends in a small community. We’ve seen its major affect on a Commercial Street business as recently as the past year. The impact could be even more devastating if your business does not have a digital presence to meet this generation at the point of contact.
Combat: Control the narrative by accentuating the positives of your business and what you have to offer, especially in the digital space. Understand how your patrons (and your employees) receive information most frequently and meet them at that medium, which are often times social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Tailor your message to them, both independently and to the group, and know the difference between the appropriateness of both actions (sometimes things are better left for a private message than a public forum). Strategize your specials to cater to groups of people instead of a single consumer. In tandem with the last roadblock – make sure your millennial employees are recognized in a way that can be seen by their group of influencers. It’s an easy step that goes a long way in making them feel wanted, and also it gives them the public praise they crave.
Roadblock: Mundane and monotonous work is kryptonite to millennials
Why: In a highly competitive job market, there has been increased research in finding out why exactly millennials find it essential to do meaningful work at all times. A general optimistic approach to all sorts of career and lifestyle possibilities leads many to believe that there is a real sense positive, impactful change can be made within the current economic and social systems (as opposed to outside of those systems, like the popular thought of those rebel Gen Xers before them). This means one thing – regardless of task, everything can be connected to a greater task; therefore, every task can have meaning.
Effect: In a community the size of Emporia, it will remain crucial that many services are provided by college-aged students from ESU and FHTC. These “student jobs” aren’t meant for finding the cure for cancer or saving the rain-forests, so the meaning behind simple tasks will consequently seem pointless or irrelevant to the “big picture.” In a nutshell, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to engage, challenge, and inspire the employees of this generation without some practical thought.
Combat: Connect the dots – this means that the business owner (or manager) has to be the one to bring purpose to the dull or mundane. You can’t expect them to do it by themselves, as creative problem solving isn’t their strong suit due to lack of practical experience. Acknowledge that the task may seem irrelevant but is actually a link in the chain to doing what you do (maximizing profits, raising funds, providing the best customer experience, etc.). If you meet this generation up front with this knowledge and understanding, you’ll be a step ahead.
Roadblock: Millennials are hard-wired to collaborate – on everything
Why: This issue is easy to understand if you have ever been on a social media website for at least an hour. This is the generation that learns how to watch Netflix on a tablet before going to the bathroom in a toilet – can we really blame them? The digital age is one of information, where any answer is at your fingertips and there’s really no such thing as “I wonder what happened to that guy from high school?” anymore.Independence is counterintuitive to the age of group think in which we currently live. Collaboration on anything – social, educational, economical – is practically implied with every decision. Lest we forget, this is also the generation whose parents flew a metaphorical helicopter around them to ensure their safety. When I say “hard-wired,” I really mean “ingrained in the prominent culture.”
Effect: There will be times when, after giving a millennial employee an independent assignment, they won’t know where to start without feedback. Keep in mind – this generation craves constant feedback in order to learn and grow, both personally and professionally. Millennials’ are a product of their highly-collaborative environment, thus the anxiety and self-doubt when it comes to doing the exact opposite.
Combat: Ensure that all tasks, especially those that are independent in nature, are thoroughly explained and are understood by your millennial employee. Don’t think of it as “hand holding;” it’s more about shaping the environment and culture to be supportive. Be upfront in the interviewing process about how your work environment is structured. Will there be mostly independent work, or is it more of a team setting? This aids in clearing up any confusion. Most in this generation like to “learn by doing,” so try to walk through complicated processes and wait for pointed questions. Because of the cultural implications, it’s necessary to make sure you have a clear understanding of what type of environment you’re creating at your place of business – a millennial can smell it from a mile away. Take care to shape your culture to one of “doing” and invite your workforce along for the ride with attractive incentives and practical training.
The most important part to remember here is the why. Without the why, we’ll fail to recognize patterns and trends with any generation and be doomed to repeat our collective mistakes. Empowering millennials to be at the top of their game will not only garner you a steady stream of advocates (who are chomping at the bit to boast about you), but it will also maximize your workplace productivity and ensure tranquility amongst your staff. In our efforts to identify and retain quality volunteers, Main Street has had to take a hard, objective look at these very things. Unfortunately, there’s no single right answer in combatting any one of these issues – we hope this can start a dialogue about what your current practices are and what needs to be improved in order to reach this critical demographic. The future of all businesses (AND the community!) are at stake. Have any specific questions about these 80-million strong? Send us a message, and join in the discussion!
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About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.