The Young and the Feckless: The Myth of Gen Y Homogeneity
An interesting question was raised in the comments section of my recent Model Behavior column and one that I'm no stranger to contemplating: Where is all of the research on and dialogue around the non-white, non-middle class Gen Y experience? Why do we only ever hear about student debt load and the plight of college grads who are moving back to the safe haven of Mom and Dad's suburban oasis? What about those who never made it to college in the first place? Who don't have the option to lean on their families, because these families are every bit as financially strapped (if not more so) than they are? What about young adults who, by virtue of culture, religion or upbringing, have different values or a different relationship to technology than those which defines the Millennial archetype?
These young adults exist and in large numbers, but you wouldn't know it from most media coverage of Gen Y/Millennials (and we share that collective fault with those who guide the research, no doubt about it). Aside from the occasional off-hand mention, they're largely invisible as a subject of study and the primary reasons for this will likely come as no great shock:
Photo by Art Pets Photography
The ugly truth is that poor people being born poor and staying poor has never been considered newsworthy. Class shifts (a weakening middle-class, heart-warming anecdotal tales of individuals who have risen from humble beginnings to the corridors of power, etc.) interest us (if only because of our fear/hope that it could happen to us), social stasis does not. There is no angle for the media or academics to exploit when it comes to the have-nots continuing to, well, have not. Cyclical poverty transcends generational demographics and is linked to a web of factors far beyond which cohort you were born into. I suspect that's part of the reason that it's rarely touched with a 10-foot pole when we discuss Gen Y's current and future plight.
The idea of Millennials as it's now used is a marketing construct. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it. It's based on psychographics, not demographics and presumes an unrealistic level of homogeneity of values, traits and attitudes across a span of youth born over a 20+ year period. You could call them the future middle class, but that's less catchy. Defining, studying, analyzing, writing about, catering to Millennials is useful in so far as it's profitable – hiring and retaining young corporate workers, selling soda, sneakers and electronics and building consumer loyalty, etc. – or has a broader, long-term economic impact – delaying home purchases, abandoning network and cable tv, etc. If these aspects of American life aren't relevant to you, then you aren't relevant to those researching Millennials. End of story. No one is talking in any great detail about the many non-economic facets of the Gen Y zeitgeist and the effects of truly shared experiences during our formative years (9-11, O.J. Simpson, the Iraq Wars, Clinton's impeachment, etc.) at the collective, class and racial levels, because they're too busy analyzing our attitudes toward online privacy to see how much further they can push the behavioral marketing envelope before we start pushing back.
Generational analysis (for lack of a better term) is a relatively new field of study and one that still needs to define and own its true impetus. Is it sociological? A basis for policy planning? Or is simply the latest advancement in market research with some nifty academic endorsement attached as a means of imparting credibility? And if it's either of the former two, we need to call on researchers, analysts, policy makers and pundits to widen the scope of their focus to include those whose attributes don't reflect the current (and largely unchallenged) Gen Y paradigm.
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