A couple of weeks back, Flavorwire was invited to attend a rather curious event sponsored by Ford. It was a panel discussion called “Hipsters Hate Cars,” promising to “use data, trends and expertise to show that Millennials aren’t just a bunch of PBR-drinking hipsters who spin vinyl and ride bikes.” Your correspondent didn’t end up attending, mainly because… well, because it was a panel discussion sponsored by Ford called “Hipsters Hate Cars,” but I did read the subsequent report in Salon with interest, especially the comments from the keynote speaker, one Jason Dorsey. Dorsey is a consultant who calls himself “The Gen Y Guy,” and reportedly told the panel that “[Millennials] don’t want commitment. They drop in and out of experiences. They can’t wear a shirt or blouse if it’s photographed. The worst fear of millennials is wearing the same dress twice on two different [social networks].” If this all sounds to you a bit like Smitty from Mad Men talking about what kids want, well, you’re not the only one — so Flavorwire tracked down Dorsey to ask him about stereotyping, data analysis, and how effectively one can ascribe characteristics to an entire generation.
Flavorwire: How does one get to be a millennials expert?
Jason Dorsey: My personal path was starting out as a millennial. That certainly helped. I wrote a best-selling book when I was 18 years old, and spent the next seven years traveling all over, talking with millennials about how to transition from high school and college into the world of work. I spoke with about 500,000 people my own age. Through that I realized there wasn’t conversation around data that would help people with that conversation. There was always anecdotal stories but people weren’t really focusing on data. So we started to say, “Well, what data is out there, and can we piece it together and really try to understand the story of millennials?” So I wrote some other books and then kind of went down the data path, of saying, “Well, let’s go out and find data that people are creating in a bunch of different ways, and talk about it.” Most of the data we review for people is private data — very large companies want us to look at their sales data, or employment data, or other data they’ve paid for, and [want us] to let them know what to do about it.
So you focus largely on selling to millennials, then?
No, we look at employment, we look at sales and marketing, and we also look at some of the larger life-stage trends, which are really important to us — things like marriage, moving out [of parents’ homes], political trends… just kind of these broader views — and [we] try to understand if they’re really representative of the generation… If you have certain views about adulthood, they wouldn’t only affect what you buy, but [also] the kind of jobs you look for, the relationship you have with your parents, how engaged you are in your community. [So] we look at some of the broader themes as well — it just happens to be that a lot of time, people are looking at the consumer side of it.
When you say “millennials,” what exactly do you mean? How do you define that demographic?
In the US, when we look at a generation, the lens or the filter that we bring to it is two things, primarily. One is birth years, because generations are essentially a birth cohort, and the other thing we look at is geography, because we find that when you change geography, a lot of the characteristics shift. When you look at, say, millennials in the US, while they’re similar to millennials in India, there are also some really important cultural differences that tend to be more geographically bound. When we talk about millennials in the States, the birth years we use are approximately 1977 to 1995, and the big events that are the bookends… [For] the oldest millennials, like myself, it’s the Challenger explosion — many of us had to watch that in school. And then the youngest millennials, the last event, the [defining] event for the whole generation, was September 11 . So we feel that there’s a hard stop at 1995, because if you were born after 1995, it’s very difficult to remember September 11 and put it in any bigger context, political or otherwise.
So that’s 18 years of births. It’s a pretty massive demographic. Why do you feel you can draw any meaningful generalizations about such a diverse group of people?
What we look at is this kind of consistency. We still see a lot of consistency across that span. Generations aren’t perfect. They’re not a box. You’re not going to get 80 million very diverse people to sit within it. So what we’re kind of looking at are these larger, more consistent trends — [millennials’] relationship with technology, maybe views about parenting, especially how they were raised. There still tends to be a lot of consistency. If you look at other generations, like the baby boomers, that’s a huge group, 1946-64. It’s not as much of a science as people would like to say it is; it’s more like clues, looking at, over this 18-year period, are we still finding enough consistency to say they’re part of the same generation, or are they so different that clearly they’re not? And [1977-1995] is a really good number that we’re comfortable with.
Salon quotes you, from the “Hipsters Hate Cars” panel, as saying, “Millenials don’t want commitment, they drop in and out of experiences, they can’t wear a shirt or a blouse if it’s been photographed before… The worst fear of millennials is wearing the same dress twice on two [different] social networks.” Is that not some pretty shallow stereotyping?
[Laughs] No, it’s not stereotyping. I think what we’re seeing [is that] people are saying, “Well, millennials, why are they not buying cars?” I’m trying to remember if that was an exact quote or not, so I can’t speak to that directly. But the concept that millennials are wading into commitment later is absolutely true. There’s no question about it. We’re seeing it in everything from willingness to switch jobs [to] delaying marriage, which is a major commitment that we keep pushing back. We see it in having children, and all kinds of long-term commitments… the idea of postponing and waiting, entering into that and easing into that later in life. Could you say it’s shallow or not shallow? It depends on what you think the reasons are. But in terms of the behavior we’re witnessing, absolutely.
I’ll tell you what my problem with this idea is. To me, it reinforces stereotypes of young people being wary of commitment and superficial. I think millennials have a lot to worry about, but wearing the same dress twice on two social networks is not foremost amongst those things.
OK, I agree with you. In the context of the event, the idea that image is really important to millennials is absolutely true. Some of the things we’re talking about are clearly about life stage, and I think that’s an important point — they’re more about life stage than the generation. Almost all young people go through a period of rebellion, they go through a period of trying on new identities, they go through a period of testing their boundaries. That’s no different here, but what we’re seeing is that [period] extending later in actual years into adulthood than it had previously. So when you think about things like wearing the same dress twice on a social network, while relative to shelter and food and these kind of bigger issues, clearly it’s not ranked high on the list, from a consumer standpoint, it is something that brands have to consider. If I have a different relationship with things I want to buy, that does affect how [brands] want to present them to me.