Per the dullest work of my idlest peers, the Millennial is good for nothing save the production of terrible headlines. They are a “generation of idle trophy kids”, responsible for “the vanishing bar of soap” and, of course, so committed to the consumption of exotic coffees, they basically brewed a national crisis of housing affordability.
This age group — defined now as being somewhere between 20ish and 35ish — is, as poor opinion columnists would have it, the worst of all possible age groups. Hmm. Perhaps the parenting techniques of some in the white middle class raised a handful of entitled little turds in skinny jeans. Then again, perhaps this wide age range, more ethnically diverse and larger in Australia than any previous, does not have a uniform character.
Still. Even if we do all secretly concede that the Millennial “character” is largely defined by both us — older and therefore biologically obliged to deride any younger creature — and the worst crises of employment and housing affordability in 80 years, this doesn’t stop some from making a dollar painting their counterfeit portrait. If it’s not Bernard Salt or “the Kouk” pressing half-arsed data into moralising profit, it’s the advertising industry. Only they don’t talk about the bad, narcissistic, soap-stealing Millennials. They talk about the optimistic, inclusive, “tech savvy” kind.
Last week, I accepted an invitation to a Millennial Marketing conference in Melbourne’s Federation Square and, no, I don’t know how my name got on their list, either. There, I found a free buffet lunch — deplorably free of the food intolerance labels of which I had hoped to make fun — and the obverse of the complaint of the opinion industry. One man’s lazy egotist is another’s target market.
I did not comprehend a good deal of what the speakers, largely my age, had to say about the successful sale of undergarments to persons born after 1980. This is less a testament to the complexity of the ideas — seriously, how much “science” can there be in selling tacos? — than to my unwillingness to even google phrases like “beware of the digital cliff” and “positive interaction with cult brands”. But I did begin to grasp how the advertising professionals of the present age manage to sleep at night. They do so not only by rebranding shit as Shinola to consumers, but, apparently, to themselves.
One speaker praised Millennials as “entrepreneurial” players in an “access economy”. Which translates roughly as “precariously employed” and “driven to do various, annoying and possibly illicit things to make money”. We were then treated to a PowerPoint slide of a joyous and entrepreneurial youngster stocking up on baby formula in a local supermarket in order to resell in China. That kids are so broke, they’re prepared to flout customs regulations didn’t particularly buoy me. But, no matter, because, as several speakers said, the Millennial is very optimistic!
We heard this a lot. Millennials are hopeful for the future! Sure, they know they’ll never buy a home, possibly even a car — this is good news for ad folks, who do not see a social problem, but an uptick in sales for minor luxuries — but they’re optimistic.
Oh. Of course they are. They’re young. They’re both optimistic and narcissistic. These are natural conditions for all youth, and are hardly peculiar to a single generation.
I remember being optimistic and narcissistic. At that time, I was, for reasons that remain unclear, courted as an associate by ad people. Perhaps they were so affected by scheduled narcotics, they mistook me for an “influencer” and bought me lunches far grander than last week’s sandwich buffet. The lunches have changed. So, apparently, have the ad people.
Once, over a crown roast of hare — it was the ’90s — someone from one of the big agencies said something about “selling bullshit to young idiots”. I really don’t think those in the business of engaging the lucrative youth market admit that today. You won’t hear the Don Draper cynicism — “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons” — at a marketing conference of the present. Instead, you’ll hear earnest statements about the very upbeat nature of millions of very broke people, all underscored by pieces of PowerPoint pie. They feel free not owning a home! They’re truly global members of a fluid world! Look at my chart, if you don’t believe me.
The pseudoscience was strong in this one. It struck me as having a basis as flimsy and as ideological as, say, the Paleo diet. One identical in composition, if not tone, to those about avo toast and soy latte. Why do Millennials buy things? Because they’re optimistic! Why don’t Millennials buy houses? Because they’re lazy narcissists who don’t know how to save! Look at my chart.
This scientistic approach to marketing might have felt new to some of the young participants at the conference, but it’s an old technique, which serves largely to make those in the business of selling feel vindicated and powerful enough to sell. Edward Bernays, largely acknowledged to be the parent of contemporary advertising, used snippets of his uncle Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis to embellish his craft to himself and others.
The old blokes who coined, and proceeded to profitably sell, the term “Millennial” also advanced a hokey method. Neil Howe and the late William Strauss had some very nice things to say about Millennials back at the turn of the century, and their several books that advanced “generation theory” sold exceedingly well. Basically, this marketing and pop-sociology theory has it that generations have their own distinct character, and that this character emerges about once every eighty years, or, ”a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum.” The pair, both of whom were involved in conservative political projects when not rebranding the “ancients”, did not have their work well-received by academics. But many people, especially those in the ad industry, who like to hear “proof” that generations have a unified character, developed a quite spiritual relationship with “generation theory”.
Perhaps you recall, as I do, hearing something stupid, dressed up in the appearance of science or intellectualism, about your own age group. In 1990, we then young X-ers were shamed by Time magazine as rudderless hedonists who wouldn’t know a hard day’s labour if it borrowed our flannelette shirts. In 1976, then young Boomers were famously charged by Tom Wolfe as the “Me Generation” with a (literal) fixation on their own large intestines. It could be that Generation Ancient had their own antagonist in the economist Hesiod who may have said circa 700 BC, “When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.”
The most disrespectful and impatient, I think, are those who ascribe to an entire age-range, or gender or ethnicity, a single character, whether good or bad. There’s no harm, I suppose, in ad people telling themselves that they are “on fleek” or “bae” with their branding. But, there is harm in entire categories of people being corralled by a range of forces, including low-pay, precarious housing and relentless temptation to buy their way out of their misery on a range of platforms.
One of the speakers boasted of her company’s research presence in campuses across the nation. “We’re in their student lounges,” she said. “We’re in their credit unions”. This, to me, was the most distressing news all day. Well, if we don’t count the contents of my goody bag, which contained “chips” made from chia seeds.
Actually, if they can sell that cardboard snack to anyone, I may reconsider the data-driven “genius” of the contemporary advertiser. Until then, I’ll just mourn for the world those poor little optimistic narcissists have been left to sort out.