On Halloween, you get permission to be something that you’re not, surprising the world with a big reveal.
I’ve found something similar in my work with millennials: Many people have specific, often negative stereotypes about this generation. They’re surprised when they find someone behind the “millennial mask” with traits they weren’t expecting: hardworking, humble, inquisitive, to name a few.
When I talk to people about my work, I hear a lot of preconceived notions about what millennials are like. Most of the time they’re not entirely true. Today I want to provide a peek behind that millennial mask. Although it’s tough to “define” a group of 80 million people, here are some general descriptors I feel comfortable sharing:
First, Don’t Call Them Millennials
Wait, what? Let me explain.
A recent study from Pew Research found that only 40 percent of millennials even identify with the word “millennial,” while nearly 80 percent of those aged 51 to 69 consider themselves part of the Baby Boom generation. I was actually surprised that almost half of millennials are comfortable with their generational moniker. Most young people I meet prefer that their generation not have a title at all.
I think members of Gen Y don’t identify with the term “millennial” because of the negative generalizations that are frequently applied to the millennial generation in the media, like “entitled” or “lazy.” I also find this generation to be more focused on describing themselves as individuals (hence the rise in “personal branding” as a career skill) than as a member of a massive group.
So, what should we call them? Clearly I do use the term millennial (because it’s helpful to call this cohort something), but most millennials don’t care for any group name at all. This is challenging, of course, if you want to talk about people in this age range, but it’s important for marketers and recruiters to understand. (For example, it’s probably not a good idea to market your product or company using the phrase “millennial-friendly.”)
So, what IS a millennial (if we can use that word)?
Let’s move on to some actual data points about this cohort.
P.S. Don’t worry if this is all news to you – you didn’t miss “generations day” in high school. The word millennial is relatively new, and some of the specifics are nebulous, which can promote confusion.
- How old are they?
Demographers disagree, but the general number I use – and the one that Pew uses – is those who are between the ages of 18 to 34 in 2015.
- How did millennials get their name?
Credit for the moniker “millennial” goes to Neil Howe and and the late William Strauss, who first used the term in the mid-90s and wrote Millennials Rising in 2000. It was outgrowth of work they had done for a book called Generations, which was among the first to explore the idea that groups share qualities such as beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors because of the time period when they grew up.
Other names applied to this generation include:
- Generation Y: Yes, “millennial” and “Gen Y” are the same thing.
- Echo boomers: As children of Boomers, millennials make up the largest generation since their parents.
- Digital natives: They are the first generation who don’t know life without the internet and personal tech devices.
By the way, my personal pet peeve surrounding the name is when it is couched in the phrase “so-called millennials.” We don’t say “so-called Gen X-ers,” do we? Can’t we just call them millennials at this point?
- What’s next?
The race is on, of course, to coin the term for the next generation, with contenders such as Post Generation, the iGeneration and the Pluralist Generation, also known as the “Plurals.” The name that’s used most often? Gen Z. And that’s leading some to speculate on the generation after that, many of whom haven’t even been born yet. Since we are now out of letters, one expert has stepped forward to call these yet-to-be-conceived kids Generation Alpha. (Personally, I am reserving judgment until that generation is actually conceived.)
In my opinion, being “millennial” is, in many ways, a state of mind. Pew Research even has a fun quiz, “How millennial are you?” that shows where you fit on the scale and how you compare with others in your generation.
And with that, class is dismissed. I’d love to hear what else you’ve always wanted to know about millennials — and how you scored on the quiz — in the comments!
Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, and the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.