Lawrence Wykes writes: The idea of the generational cohort as a unit of social research and analysis goes back to the definition of the ‘boomers’ – America’s immediate port-war generation, now clipping to retirement. Since then we’ve had waves of new cohorts, from Gen X, to Gen Y, to the latest addition, Millennials. Millennials (the people, not the label) were born in the late ’80s, or so, approaching adolescence or adulthood by the turn of the century.
But the question of whether the Millennials are a coherent cohort is still open – the data has never quite added up. And our recent analysis, based on our Global Monitor data, suggests that as a group the Millennials are a fragmented cohort, refracted by technology.
In fact, we found four different groups (although more may have been lurking in the data) and these already suggest a more fruitful way of thinking about this generation.
- Striders have been relatively unscathed by the recent economic downturn; they are marching forth with enthusiasm, and keen for success and all the material frills they perceive will come along with it.
- Steppers have been hit hard by the downturn, which has left them price conscious and feeling negative about their future. They are cautious, considered, and want to make the most of what they’ve got.
- Satellites are optimistic about the future and know how to use the resources available to them, especially technology (they are tech-mad), to get what they want.
- Spirits are poster children for the Millennials generation; they are socially conscious and interested in things happening at a global and local level.
So if Millennials are fragmented and so easily segmented by their differing technology use and attitudes, why do they look like a generation to researchers?
I think Millennials look like a generation because there is a social-technology breakpoint between their cohort and all previous generations. Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with modern technology proper – and this is manifested in the fluid way they use technology to construct their identities and manage their environments.
But, in terms of social analysis, defining a group by technology – rather than their underlying attitudes and values – has problems. Technology evolves and changes, and it seems unlikely that the Millennial generation will grow older while remaining as inventive with technology as they have been in their young adult lives. And the next generation – however they get labelled – may well turn out to be just as creative with technology as we were
More usefully, though, this does open up a promising research question: do the different uses of technology by these different Millennial groups reflect differences in underlying values and attitudes? In other words, will these groups remain distinct as they get older? It seems possible – but so far, we just don’t know.