01 Jun 2015
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Ask the Expert: The Kids Are All Right

Making sense of millennials
Re: Eric Martin (MBA 1990); Katina Stefanova (MBA 2005); Jules Pieri (MBA 1986); Patricia Messina (MBA 1988)

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Photo by Trinette Reed/Corbis

Millennials, says Anne Hubert (MBA 2007, JD 2008), get a bad rap. Often labeled as entitled, lazy, and spoiled, the group—broadly defined as anyone born between 1981 and 2000—is changing norms. “They’re making the world a little more to their liking and forcing the rest of us to adapt,” says Hubert, SVP at Viacom and head of Scratch, the company’s “creative SWAT team.” That means change on a global scale: Millennials, currently one-third of the global population and more than 85 million strong in the United States, are projected to be 75 percent of the global workforce by 2030. Here, Hubert offers a look at where they are headed.

The millennial generation is so large as to beg the question, are millennials a single cohort? There are millennial homeowners and millennial teenagers. Parents and the parented. What beliefs and behaviors do you feel span the millennial generation and will also be enduring as they age?
—Eric Martin (MBA 1990)

HUBERT: There’s no denying 15-year-olds have a very different daily reality than 34-year-olds. But powerful forces have shaped the contours of the generation, tectonic plates acting on them in shared, universal ways, and the results run much deeper than mere life phase.

Take how they were raised. This is a generation that’s grown up as the center of attention, thrust into the nucleus of the family, with parents orbiting around them. They have been told they can be anything they want to be—and celebrated with trophies for coming in 11th place. They’ve had their opinions so valued at home that they can’t help but expect the rest of the world to receive them the same way.

When they show up at work, we inherit that. They believe they’ve got something to give the world and are ready to make an immediate impact—they’re just searching for how.

Are millennials more concerned about their positive impact on the planet and on society—less focused on money and more on meaning? Is the shift toward a more conscientious generation a true trend or a myth?
—Katina Stefanova (MBA 2005)

HUBERT: Millennials are often misunderstood when it comes to their social conscience. To them, doing good is just table stakes. Scratch has developed a proprietary methodology examining “brand love” to decode the science of brand affinity across generations. We found that millennials assume that big brands, corporations, and institutions are finding ways to do the right thing. We also found that their expectations in this vein are often higher than other generations’ expectations. In the automotive category, for instance, millennials expect car companies to create vehicles that will get more than 60 miles per gallon in 10 years. The boomers we surveyed only expected MPG to improve to 45 in that same span of time.

When I’m advising clients across industries, leaders often ask how their corporate social responsibility initiatives will help them win millennial affinity, and the truth is, it’s not going to set you apart. You won’t look dramatically different from your competitors for having a slightly better campaign. That’s not to say scrap it, though: They’ll notice if your brand isn’t helping the world become a better place. In short, as my mother would say, you don’t get extra credit for doing your homework.

Do you see a shift from big brands to independent makers and retailers among this generation? If so, can you quantify it?
—Jules Pieri (MBA 1986)

HUBERT: Distinctions like “corporate” versus “independent” reflect a mindset more characteristic of Generation X than the millennials. This generation is far more open to great experiences, great products, great narratives, wherever they come from—new or old, big or small, corporate or homegrown.

This openness of the millennials is having enormous impact, creating opportunities for startups, insurgents, and existing players to battle for market share. At Scratch, we’ve built a set of tools to get beneath the surface of their impact. These include a massive four-year study of industry disruption by millennials, which included responses from more than 20,000 people about 125 brands spanning 25 industries. It revealed two factors that matter when it comes to disruption: how different you are and how loved you are.

We found industries where there are already clear winners that have pulled away from their competitors and gained the love of millennial consumers. (Online search, sports apparel, and mobile technology are among them.) And there are industries in which a clear winner has not yet been chosen—industries where all the brands are perceived as the same. (Here, think financial services, health care, and retail.) These industries are most at risk for disruption by this generation and offer an opportunity for a brand to break away and win with the millennials.

One of the most interesting findings from our survey is that, unlike any generation before them, millennials are comparing consumer experience across categories.

They’re not comparing brands in retail, for example, against competitors in that category; they’re comparing those brands to the best in their lives, forcing incumbent brands to reinvent themselves to match the experiences that Apple, Nike, Google, Warby Parker, and the rest of the brands they love have taught them to expect. It’s not enough today for brands to look across their categories at what their direct competitors are doing; they have to look at the entirety of consumers’ experiences.

How can I motivate millennials who work for me?
—Trish Messina (MBA 1988)

HUBERT: Millennials are challenging all the core tenets we’ve held about work—leadership, careers, hierarchy, recruiting.

They’re not satisfied being “position players,” content to learn and own one part of the process. They’re true athletes. They’re versatile, capable, and eager to perform. They want to work on multiple projects simultaneously, they want to see the big picture, they want to know when and how they’re getting to the next level. They seem to have an almost insatiable appetite for what’s next.

Managing them can be tricky, but the rewards for investing in them are enormous. This is a generation interested in making change from within. When Gen Xers, their predecessors, were their age, they tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, giving “the man” the finger. Not this generation. They’re effecting change from within. As MTV’s president Stephen Friedman says, millennials aren’t fighting the power, they are the power, and they know it.

So use them. Show them how they can learn from you, and be sure to learn from them. Ask their opinions. Solicit their ideas. Show them how their contributions are adding up to the bigger picture. They are willing to put the time in, but they have to understand why it’s worth it and what they’ll get in the meantime.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2007, Section B
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