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S1E0 We have questions about Millennials

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How on earth did Millennials go from being the glowing, favorite child of an entire nation–our primary source of hope for the future–into the enemy? The bad guys. Murderers. Sort of. Killers of the housing market, fast food and the napkin industry. For 20 years, we’ve observed and participated in the crafting and re-crafting of this narrative to help sell things from policy, economic strategy and yes, um, napkins.

In The Demo, a podcast about how stories of groups are created, subverted and destroyed. On the first season, we pursue the origins of the Millennial Myth. Farrah Bostic is the founder and Head of Research & Strategy of, The Difference Engine, a strategic insights consultancy focused on helping business leaders make decisions. Adam Pierno, author and brand consultant and managing director of brand strategy at Arizona State University. Our host is voiced by Eliza, a robot created by

Music by 0megaMan under the Creative Commons license. Learn more and find research and supporting materials at

Show outline (which is generated by another robot;

0:00 Introduction

1:22 What’s inside the homogeneity that defines it

2:53 How the popular narrative about millennials has evolved over time

5:52 Millennials are a very amorphous and flexible and malleable punch line

8:38 Millennials are still the media shorthand for youth, even though many of them are in their 40s now

10:42 The importance of having the benefit of time to look back on the myth

12:02 What’s changed in the world of brand marketing

14:28 What happens if you deviate from the expectation?

Full transcript (generated by AI, and a bit wonky, to be honest)

Eliza T Robot 0:02
Welcome to In The Demo, a show about the stories that get told about groups, how those stories got made, what we think those stories get wrong, and why it matters you hosts. Farah Bostic is the founder and head of research and strategy of The Difference Engine, a strategic insights consultancy focused on helping business leaders make decisions. Adam Pierno author and brand consultant and Managing Director of brand strategy at Arizona State University. You are now in the demo.

A P 0:39
I’m Adam Pierno, Generation X.

Farrah Bostic 0:42
And I’m Farah Bostic, Carter baby. Apparently, I just found that out.

A P 0:49
Is that like instant Google result that is popping up?

Farrah Bostic 0:54
It is it’s a right up at the top you’ve got a you got a shortlist of other names for the microgeneration born between 75 and 80. I think it’s funny that people are still trying to make that a thing that it’s a microgeneration.

A P 1:06
That’s part of the story that we are telling in this podcast, the big lumps of people that you’re supposedly are part of and are emblematic of who you are. And yet you look at the list of characteristics and go, I don’t I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Farrah Bostic 1:22
That’s, that’s not my experience at all, or that’s not doesn’t describe me in the slightest. And that all seems super problematic when we tried to like segment audiences or parts of the public for the purposes of understanding politics or anything else. And like, let’s just group them into these birth years and say that they are a thing.

It seems to me they’re probably not

A P 1:48
not quite as homogeneous as we wished at some point.

Farrah Bostic 1:53
No, no, that is when you

A P 1:55
and I over the summer, decided, hey, we’re gonna make a podcast, we have a lot of questions that we both find interesting. We settled on this idea of looking at groups and looking at just exactly that thing, like getting into the what’s inside the homogeneity, what’s inside the research that defines it. And the first story that we thought was the most compelling and that we both really latched onto pretty quickly was the millennial myth. And I was interested in the current headlines of it, you know, how wild it is that millennials are accused of killing everything in culture and the economy and the world. And we’d look at that in a future episode. But as we started pulling at it, some of the things you remembered some of the things you knew about the very early formation of the myth? I opened the door for me to say I think we could do a whole season focused on getting really go in and examining and trying to figure out where did all this start? before it got to where we are today? And then filling in that space in the middle?

Farrah Bostic 3:07
Yeah, cuz I think my my fixation has been, it’s this kind of short term memory situation with the way the kind of popular narrative about millennials has evolved, where at any given moment in time, the snapshot that’s being presented, is presented as if it was both ever thus, and shall ever be so right that millennials are like this. Full stop. And not Millennials are reacting to social, economic political forces this way at this moment, which would be itself an improvement, though, still not probably sufficient to describe 10s of millions of people. But instead, you blink and you forget what you were saying yesterday about millennials. And today, you’re saying something else, and you blink again, and tomorrow, you say something else. And because I’ve just sort of happened to be fed millennial trend reports, since they were more or less invented, it sticks in my head of like, wait, you know, last time I thought about this, you were telling me something else. And so you know, my tendency is always to go, Wait, where did this begin? What’s the origin of this sort of thing? And I can’t help myself, I just immediately have to, like, go look it up. But it also then revealed that it turned out I’d already read the first book.

A P 4:25
Yeah, we did a lot of research to figure out that you already had it in a storage unit that already you had already read. Very funny.

Farrah Bostic 4:32
Hilarious. Yes. So just seem like you know, if we’re going to understand how this kind of public narrative has been crafted and shaped and evolved over time, we have to sort of start at the beginning and keep looking at what’s going on now and start to kind of pick apart well, who are the people within this generational cohort? And how much do they really have in common and You know, what, what’s driving their responses to things. And I think the thing that we, I think I’ve come up with over all the research we’ve been doing, and the look look backs and looking at now is that there are elements of truth in these stories. And then a whole lot of licence being taken to explain those elements of truth, there are a lot of the things that are being no go finish. Go ahead. I was gonna say a lot of the things that are being explained by Well, it’s because they’re millennials. Is is confusing, you know, which, which end of the, which end of the stick we should be looking at here, it’s, it’s the economy or its policy, or its technology, or its culture or whatever. And, and the millennials aren’t making it be that way. They’re reacting to it being that way, based on where they are in their lives. And the other experiences they have

A P 5:52
that, that idea of it’s because they’re millennials, is a very amorphous and flexible and malleable punch line, that for the time that they were the future of America, and the optimistic saviors demographically of America in the world. They’re millennials, they’re going to fix it. They’re great. Here’s all the things that are great about them. And then it became well, we’re in this great recession here and Oh, shit. Well, they’re millennials. And now it’s they’re killing toilet paper, and they’re killing the economy. They’re killing homebuying. They’re killing every single part of culture and and the economy. They’re millennials. And as we as that story shifts, what we’ve been able to do in the in the research that we’ve done is, I’m a little cautious of our own work, that I don’t want to be guilty of what I think has happened to millennials, which is one or two data points that make a narrative that works as a point in time. I’m trying to be cautious in our examination that we don’t say, Aha, here’s the golden key, you know, here’s, here’s the answer. And what’s been fun about recording the episodes. And the conversations we already have, is both of our skepticism of jumping to that conclusion, and get, you know, saying here’s the answer. Here’s, you know, we found the first book, and this is where everything went wrong. And it’s 100%. Our point of view is correct. Yeah.

Farrah Bostic 7:19
It’s so much more complicated than that. It’s always like, Well, maybe it’s this, and maybe it’s also these five other things. And maybe it’s all six things happening simultaneously. And that’s why I think the other thing that’s interesting and are looking at this is discovering that this is a pattern that repeats, and that, you know, some of the things that we’re used to characterize and find early on what Millennials were, were the exact same things that were being used. Kind of later in their evolution. You know, we started talking about millennials. I mean, in the public discourse, in particular, like we really start talking about millennials as they’re about to graduate as, as the first ones are about to graduate from high school in 2000. And, you know, there had been people who cared for 10 years before that, but that’s really when it starts to pick up the pace is like 98 99,000. And for Gen Xers, they got characterized much later, they got defined and labeled well into their 20s. But some of the same characteristics that they were using to describe Gen Xers are being used to describe Millennials are now being used to describe Gen Z. And, you know, to some degree, there’s some similar characteristics talk, you know, that we’re used to describe boomers for that matter. And what I think the other thing we were reacting to is, millennials are still kind of the media shorthand for youth, even though many of them are into their 40s. Now, or as I refer to them, the newly old welcome, it’s just as fine here as it was over there. Like, I don’t know that much, much changes really a little bit more. Exactly. And more things exhausts you emotionally and intellectual. That seems weird to keep sort of when you’re talking about, I mean, even over the last couple of weeks, right, the youth vote is including millennials, even though many of them are 43 years old, and it’s like, what are we talking about here? This may be the tipping point moment where we’re gonna stop talking about millennials as youth and start talking about Gen Z as youth because I already see people flogging a Gen Z saved us narrative on the Twitter’s about the election. Yes. And it’s like, oh, I can’t wait for the actual tabulations to come back and to find out that they did fine, but they did not outperform anybody’s expectations. It’s it’s it’s the cycle that just keeps repeating and each time and this comes up in a lot of our conversations in the other episodes, there’s this when they’re young and not yet out of college. They are the future they are the saviors they will be Heroes, and then they graduate from college and they are pains in the ass. And they’ve seemed to want a lot of stuff. And like they ask a lot of questions or whatever, like, whatever it is that they suddenly reveal themselves is not easy children. They’re sort of difficult young adults, and then they become disappointments later on. And that that’s the kind of early narrative arc from like, you know, 12 to 45. That’s the story of the youth. And once they hit 45, well, we probably just start, stop talking about them altogether. That’s usually the way it goes. And then they reemerge when they’re nearing retirement. Because they matter again. And so that’s, that’s also part of what we wanted to dig into. And it’s

A P 10:42
been an interesting series of conversations that we’ve been able to have and series of research projects that we’ve been able to dig up. Because when we when I was in it, you know, as the narrative was being shaped, and as they were a core customer that I had to figure out in earlier parts of my career. You’re in the ocean, you can’t see the edges of it. But now we have the benefit of time. Yeah, we can look back we we found what we consider the source text, we found people that were there at the very beginning of the storytelling. And we have found people that were asking the questions, but maybe not loudly enough, or maybe didn’t have the right platform for anybody to to pick up what they were saying or add it to the story. And so the perspective that we have, just through the benefit of time, is allowing us a to really examine the formation of the myth, how it got, I guess, transcreation is the buzzword that goes along with the rise of the millennial generation from that time period. And then how it got deconstructed, and now how it’s being copied, pasted, replicated with Gen Z, and even Gen A, you can already see they’re the saviors before Gen Z is even fast into cranky, middle aged people with mortgages and jobs.

Farrah Bostic 11:58
Yeah, and I feel like 10 years from now, we know what we can

A P 12:01
predict. We could probably write the date in an envelope when those stories will start and be correct about it. Put a

Farrah Bostic 12:07
little time capsule for Gen Z together. Because we’ve both been in this, you know, brand marketing advertising strategy world. Our clients are always, you know, not not all of them. But many of them believe that you have beliefs about the importance of youth audiences. Let’s put it that way. Right. So either it’s the probably misbegotten belief that will if you get them when they’re young, then they’ll be loyal customers for the rest of their lives. And I have a I have a story to tell about finding out that my mother was not brand loyal to a particular laundry detergent, it was whatever they had at Costco, right. So they will find out that that does not work eventually, but but in the meantime, you know, clients and brands have ideas about youth culture as a thing, and they have ideas about the value of young customers, and so they spend a fair amount of time obsessing about them. And, you know, working in these kinds of consulting or agency roles were often kind of, you know, looking to see what we can find about these audience demographics. And what we’re being given is, whatever the latest public narrative is, and if you’ve been doing this long enough, you start to go hang on, Joseph, this narrative took a turn

A P 13:19
or and now if I look up anything, and I start with desk research, I’m like, this is just content marketing, like this is all just claptrap.

Farrah Bostic 13:27
Click Beatty. Exactly. We also have talked about buzzfeed quizzes of you know, you’re a millennial, if you know, you know, these things are recognizable to the veil has been lifted, and the remix culture is what it is. And so stuff that used to all be kind of behind the scenes for marketers to think and care about and like create mood boards and Persona slides about about the audience types are now like BuzzFeed, you know, questionnaires and stuff that people will 10 years ago, we’re spending a lot of time at work taking these buzzfeed quizzes to be validated that they were in fact Millennials are not. And it feels like the narrative is like turned on itself where now it you know, it is the snake eating its own tail. It’s like we’re telling millennials, what they’re supposed to be like, we’re doing this again, with Gen Z, we did it with Gen X, you are like this. And we have these cultural expectations of you now because of that, and you should just live up or down to whatever those expectations are. Yes. How much do you buy? What people are telling you? You’re

A P 14:27
allowed to say? No, exactly.

Farrah Bostic 14:30
If you say no, if you sort of deviate from the expectation, like Does anybody even see it? Like because they know what to expect? And that’s all they’re ready to believe.

A P 14:40
So we went into this season with a curiosity about millennials. We didn’t know it was going to be a season but it looks like if you stay with us, we are going to look at the current headlines about millennials and have some fun. We are going to look at research that was presented early on in various places and get to know are millennials from the time they were graduating high school and how that compared nationally and see you maybe some of those conclusions were a little a little off. We’re gonna look at that source text, we’re going to examine the research done as part of that source text and figure out the some of the questions we have about the methodology there. And we’re going to look at even the fundamentals of how do you do research like this at scale. And then look at the way culture has changed over 1520 years, and spend some time looking at millennials as a part of culture, and what the reflection is, as a part of this season, which I’m hoping is season one of a few seasons, at least, we’ll see if Eric can tolerate me for a second season, as we’re halfway through this, this one at this point in time. I have

Farrah Bostic 15:48
I have a good feeling about it. You’re highly tolerable, Adam. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, yeah, cuz I think like this is just one of many kinds of groups that get defined for the purposes of thinking about

audiences and marketing and politics and just the way we talk about culture. And, and they all have their problems. It’s just I think this one is truly probably the largest single cohort of a group of people that has been given a single name and a single narrative. The narrative changes every five years or so. But but it’s, it’s a good place to start. And there are other groups too, that I think we’re curious about that if we don’t just get exhausted, we’ll we’ll tackle those in subsequent efforts. But for now, like there’s so much to say about millennials, it’s almost impossible to think about how to keep it to 10 or so episodes, but I think we’ve done it we’ll see

Eliza T Robot 16:46
On the next episode of In the demo, Farah and Adam, look at the current headlines to see how millennials are reflected in news and media while examining some of the dominant perceptions of the millennial generation today. I’m your robot host, Eliza, please be kind. In The Demo is produced by Farah Bostic, and Adam Pierno with support from The Difference Engine music by Omega Man under the Creative Commons license. Go to in the demo podcast dot com for behind the scenes research and supporting information.

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