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A Generation Lost in Translation?

Alison Hillhouse, MTV Insights

Millennials are often caricatured (“entitled”, “narcissistic”) … and certainly we’d argue there’s a lot of subjectivity and inter-generational misunderstanding happening here. What to a Millennial is a “healthy sense of self” is perhaps to a Gen-Xer an “over inflated ego.” What to one is “entitlement” is to another a “sense of having a place and value” in the scheme of a rather chaotic world.

At MTV, we try to understand things from the Millennial generation through their eyes “inside out,” versus the “outside in” angle much commentary on this generation comes from.

As part of that push to understand what’s really happening, we have also been looking at the way semantics plays into this dynamic.

Case in point: Jean Twenge’s recent study (http://ow.ly/bxeF3) indicates that Millennials are more focused on “extrinsic” values of money, image and fame versus “intrinsic” values of self-acceptance, affiliation and community. (It’s certainly the latest fuel added to the fire of the popular “Generation Me” versus “Generation We” debate.) Twenge’s study is based on an analysis of major longitudinal studies, including Monitoring the Future (conducted since 1976) and the American Freshman Survey (conducted since 1966). While her study sheds light on some truths about this generation, we believe that the semantics of the surveys, using language more familiar 50 years ago, leaves Millennials a bit “lost in translation.”

MTV fielded a brief quantitative survey and conducted an internal focus group to see how some semantics of the American Freshman Survey might lead some to inaccurate assumptions about Millennials.  A few of our findings:

1. Millennials aren’t shallow – they’re looking for meaning through doing
In Twenge’s analysis, she notes the declining importance of “Developing a meaningful philosophy of life” from Boomers to Millennials is an indicator           Millennials are less intrinsically focused. However, MTV Millennials noted that the quasi-academic notion of “philosophy” might be tripping up respondents. So we pitted this against a more Millennial friendly version (randomized in a list of life goals), and noted that a re-phrasing of this statement generated a significantly higher ranking:
Q: How important is each of the following to you in your life?

           American Freshman Project:
          “Developing a meaningful philosophy of life”  70%

          MTV’s Millennial Version:
         “Doing something meaningful with my life” 86%

Top Two Box (Very + Somewhat Impt) Sample: Online survey of 118 18-24 year olds

This goes along with everything we’ve heard in our extensive research on this generation – they’re a pragmatic generation of doers and not just philosophizers. We’ve heard a very earnest desire amongst Millennials to help others, to find meaning in life and to really make an impact. And yes… they might want a little recognition and feedback in the process, which coincides with Twenge’s conclusion that they are placing increased value on “image.” But in a world where image is on display 24/7, isn’t it hard not to?

2. Community is still important… and Millennials find new ways to contribute

Twenge points to a decline in importance of the AFP statement “participating in a community action program” as an indicator that Millennials are less community oriented. But again, the language could trip up respondents - as one MTV Millennial researcher put it, “This sounds like forced community service.” So we rephrased as such:

Q: How important is each of the following to you in your life?

           American Freshman Project:
          “Participating in a community action program”   36%

          MTV’s Millennial version:
         “Helping those who are less fortunate in your community” 66%

This result aligns better with the fact that actual volunteerism has increased significantly over the decades.

Similarly, Twenge noted that charitable contributions are down with Millennials. MTV Millennials had issue with the choice of organizations used in the MTF survey– many of which they had never heard of like CARE or Public Citizen. Our Millennials suggested some more topical organizations were Pencils for Promise and Charity Waters.

Some of the charitable organizations on the list they had heard of felt “too big.” One said said “I’d rather support a small Kickstarter versus a big huge charity, which I equate with a big huge corporation. I want to know where my money is going.” Those surveyed agreed – nearly 7 in 10 said “I prefer to donate money to smaller charities or organizations instead of larger ones.”

We also know that Millennials have a different way of donating, whether that’s through “text to donate” campaigns or through conscious consumerism. MTV found that 70% agree, “I’d prefer to support a cause through buying a product that donates to charity (e.g. Tom’s Shoes) instead of sending money directly to the charity.”

3. Eco-consciousness is a given – not a life goal

We live in a different world than the era of MadMen – some might recall when Don Draper takes his family on a picnic and disposes of litter in the grass. The 60’s gave rise to a host of PSAs educating Americans about cleaning up the environment. In the 90’s, lobbyists had to work to get it on the agenda of the government. Now, it’s status quo that everyone is trying to do their part to help the environment – consumers, corporations and the government. 

Much debate has ensued over the decline in Millennial eco-consciousness, measured by the decline in importance of a goal on the ARF survey such as “Becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment.” But as Ypulse points out, “For Millennials who have grown up being educated about environmental issues and preserving natural resources, there’s no question of whether to recycle or mind one’s carbon footprint; it’s ingrained in their behavior. It’s not “important” because they don’t have to think about it, they just do it.” (http://ow.ly/bxeHH).

In sum, we say look out for the semantic traps and easy stereotypes of all this generational diagnosis. If your business depends on understanding your Millennial consumer (or workforce), its more productive and enlightening to try to see it through their eyes, their language, their world view. Because sooner or later it is their eyes, their language and their view that will be running the world.