Few things fill the hearts of Baby Boomer executives with more terror than the quandary of how to reach Millennials. Our media would have us believe that communicating with, and marketing to, Millennials is a task less plausible than ending ISIS, global poverty, and Donald Trump’s freedom of speech put together.
Companies claim they have no clue how to talk to today’s twenty-somethings. They say they don’t understand their accelerated culture. They blame a tremendous generational disconnect, and throw their hands up in despair. What can they do?
For starters, they can understand Generation X. Because we’re the missing link in that gaping, generational disconnect. We informed and shaped Millennial culture in just about every aspect. In her Huffington Post article last summer, Christine Henseler, Chair of Modern Languages & Literatures at Union College, confirms “It is time we recognize the impact that Generation Xers across the globe have had on the Millennials’ outlook on life, work, politics, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, activism or culture.”
But Generation X’s staggering achievements and influence on present day culture is largely ignored, something author Jeff Gordinier explores in his 2008 book, X Saves The World: How Generation X Got The Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking. “In spite of what we’ve been trained to think,” Gordinier writes, “Generation X has done a lot already. The more the boomers talk about bringing the world together, the less they succeed at it, but a thousand Woodstocks couldn’t touch what Generation X has already accomplished through the shrewd and inspired use of media and technology.”
He’s right. Google, Amazon, YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, and Buzzfeed fundamentally changed the way we act, interact, think, report, and consume. Their common thread? All founded by Gen Xers. And lest we forget, Gen X cause-driven, for-profit companies like Toms and Zappos paved the way for the more informal, socially progressive business model that many Millennials enjoy today.
So why are the accomplishments of Generation X so often overlooked? Well, for one, Gen Xers don’t really like to talk about them. They were raised amidst a confusing mass of TV, pop culture references, single-parent and / or absent-parent homes, and the first major recession since WWII. Being the embarrassed, angry children of self-absorbed, career-obsessed Boomers, Gen Xers experienced “a sense of loss, marginalization, questioning and reevaluation.”
As such, Xers used their twenties to step back from the relentless pursuit of commercial wealth and success — or as the Boomers like to call it, “slacking” — to deconstruct a different future. One that included a collective greater good, a sense of purpose, and an alternative to the money = success equation. In other words, Generation X forged the path for Millennials to flourish.
Which they most certainly have done. Millennials demand transparency and accountability. They’re unafraid to share their opinions. They’re into “storytelling,” not advertising. They’ll pay more for a product that’s sustainably sourced. They want to work for a cause. They’re highly influential, have a wide network of contacts, and as employees, they expect to be a part of their company’s decision making process.
Millennials are basically Gen Xers minus the cynicism; their core values are nearly identical. If you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention to the youth of America and its shifting cultural identity these past 30 years, reaching Millennials should be far from impossible.
1) Use Comedy
But real comedy. Smart, succinct comedy. Not corporate laughter, and not dumbed-down slapstick bullshit.
Think the comedy news genre: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Daily Show, The Onion, even Buzzfeed. Gen Xers created all of these sardonic, snarky news outlets as backlash against the disingenuous reporting of the Local News at 10 with Rigid Mummy and Corporate Puppet, who were too afraid to trade advertising dollars for truth.
Millennials use and respond to comedy the same way as Xers. If you want to reach Millennials, have an authentic sense of humor — one that shows you’re grounded, intelligent, and most importantly, that you can and want to see through the BS.
2) Don’t Advertise, Tell Your Story
Mad Men-era advertising is dead in the water. Its death was accelerated by Fight Club, Generation X’s manifesto against corporate totalitarianism and the soul-sucking effects of purely capitalistic work ethics. A catchy motto plastered on a picture of hot people doing [insert activity] won’t be sufficient to sell your product or service to a Millennial. Like Gen Xers, they aren’t fooled by superficial appeals to buy wasteful crap.
Millennials want to see the whole picture. They want to know what you’re selling, sure — but more importantly, they want to know why and how. What positive social / environmental / humanitarian benefit does it have? And more importantly, what are you doing to ensure it’ll have a lasting impact? In other words, you need to tell a story that appeals to Millennials’ core values of doing good.
3) Actually, Seriously Care About Work / Life Balance
There’s a good reason why Mike Judge’s Office Space and Ricky Gervais’s The Office gained tens of millions of fans from their Gen X peers as well as from Millennials. Judge and Gervais struck a chord with a generation of young professionals who were sick to death of the traditional office culture: working inflexible, unrewarding, nine-to-five jobs for generic companies that made no positive impact on the world whatsoever. In neutral-colored, five by five foot
coffins cubicles, no less.
If you want any chance of employing a Millennial – or at least retaining them for more than eight days – you need to not only make the work environment fully inhabitable, but also offer a true work / life balance. This means being as flexible as possible with work hours, working around (within reason) outside family and personal commitments, encouraging professional development opportunities, and creating physically open workspaces that are comfortable and fun. And this does the company a world of good, as well; research shows that with increased flexibility comes increased productivity.
Most Generation X-run companies already get it. Google is probably the most prominent example, with their sprawling campus modeled in many ways to resemble that of a university, not a 1980s corporate park. Workspaces include ping pong and pool tables; the absence of cubicles; and LEED-certified architecture and design.
4) Value Their Individuality and Choices
Here’s a shocker: no one wants to be forced to be someone they’re not. Gen Xers put a strong emphasis on individuality, having the balls to brandish — and even show up to work with — piercings, tattoos, and hair every color of the Manic Panic rainbow. Their adamant support of diversity and individualism gave momentum to wide acceptance of previously taboo cultures such as LGBT, interracial relationships, and even those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Millennials have taken it one step further. They have no tolerance for norms and values that exclude people based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. They’re proud of their lifestyle choices, and embrace diversity and change. There’s literally zero point in trying to impose any kind of restrictive, premeditated parameters upon Millennials. They have numerous other avenues they can pursue that fully align with their beliefs. To actively engage with Millennials, you must respect their egalitarian lifestyle choices and values. This doesn’t mean you must agree, but you must accept it.
So if you want to reach Millennials, you’ll need to understand Generation Xers’ vision and take it one step further. This means you need to be authentic; have a vested interest in the social impact of your business; care about your employees’ lives and wellbeing; and respect the personal values and life choices of others.
Or, look at it this way: just be a good person and let that shine through.
Told you it wasn’t that difficult.