In Defense of Generational Stereotypes

safe_imageThe highly respected journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, just published two thought provoking articles urging educators to resist generational stereotyping. The first article, “The Millennial Muddle“, points out the contradictory positions of various Millennial ‘experts’ and invites college marketers and admissions officer to carefully scrutinize conclusions or prescriptions before acting on them.  Subtitled, “How Stereotyping Students Became a Thriving Industry and a Bundle of Contradictions“, this article is well worth reading,  as an overview of the lack of consensus about Gen Y traits.

The second is a commentary titled, “More than Millennials”, by Mano Singham of Case Western Reserve. Singham argues that cutting ‘earlier generations into ever more finely grained slices that encompass smaller age cohorts’ based on character traits and world view (‘generational balkanization’) not only has questionable validity, it has little value for professors in the classroom because it invites interactions based on stereotypes.

“But generational stereotypes are of no value for professors—and not because they are entirely false. After all, stereotypes are usually based on some reality. But even if different populations exhibit, on average, their own distinct traits, large populations like nations and generations include so many deviations from the norm that stereotypes are of little use in predicting the traits that any given person is likely to display.

It would be silly to argue that student behavior hasn’t changed over time. But what we are observing may not be a result of new traits emerging, but rather old traits manifesting themselves in novel forms because of changes in external conditions.

….The trouble with generational stereotyping is that it sucks the individuality out of our students, the very thing that generates those feelings of warm affection. It makes them into generic types, whose personalities and motivations we think we can discern without having to go to all the bother of actually getting to know them.”

Singham draws a parallel between this type of stereotyping and more odious stereotyping. He points out that we find this kind of simplication objectionable when applied to races or cultures, but not when applied to generations.

“The willingness of such professors to accept generational stereotypes stands in stark contrast to their sensitivity when it comes to gender and ethnic stereotypes. During one session on identifying and dealing with classroom incivilities, a couple of professors ventured the suggestion that what students considered incivil may depend on their culture: that Korean students may unwittingly commit plagiarism because they believe that citing sources is an insult to their professor; that Saudi Arabian students like to negotiate grades with their professors because they come from a bargaining culture; that Latin American students think that something is cheating only if you get caught. There was immediate pushback from other professors that such generalizations are not valid—and are in fact harmful, because they prevent us from seeing the individuality in students. Generalizations about the Millennials, however, went unchallenged.”

As a professor, I agree completely with Singham. Students are diverse and deserve to be regarded as individuals, not members of a tribe or cohort. My understanding of Millennials informs my teaching, but application is limited to the way that I structure the course, assignments,  and class time. It does not affect the way that I think about students or interact with them.

I am less scrupulous when it comes to marketing. In fact, the entire premise of this blog is that generalizing about generational differences is useful, even essential, for marketers who want to engage young audiences with their product or service. Even in the era of 1:1, personalized marketing, it is not efficient or cost effective to market individually. Some degree of aggregation is required. ‘Stereotypes’ distill essential truths about a target that can be useful for thinking about needs and desires and for prioritizing messages. Marketers prefer calling stereotypes ‘segments’ or ‘persona’s’, but it amounts to the same thing — a shorthand way to focus on commonalities and ignore idiosyncracies.

Ironically, my students have a hard time with multi-cultural marketing because to them it seems like stereotyping based on cultural or ethnic differences. They find sweeping generalizations about Hispanic, Asian or Black consumers objectionable. Yet the success of many ethnically targeted products, such as Gain Detergent, are based on just such sweeping insights.  Similarly, they object to any effort to make generalizations about their own age group. Yet, when I share Millennial profiles, as I did last week at University of Missouri – Kansas City, students see themselves reflected in those generalizations. They also like it when marketers single them out and speak directly to their needs.

The key to effective segmentation profiles, for Millennials or any group, is to ensure they are ‘values neutral’. Disparaging labels such as ‘lazy’, ‘entitled’, and ‘spoiled’ are not useful for purposes of marketing.  Far more useful are descriptions that emphasize positive qualities such as creativity, family orientation, self-expression, confidence, optimism, altruism, and comfort with technology. These generalizations are more likely to lead to products and services that will resonate with the target.

My final defense of stereotyping in marketing is based on the belief that it is more powerful to focus on what a target has in common than on differences. Segmentation can be taken too far. Millennials have a lot in common, and this provides a more efficient and powerful platform for marketers than efforts based on ‘balkanized’ differences between finely cut cohorts.  This is the basis of an earlier blog post, “Commonalities More Important than Differences” (Oct 14, 2008). Here is an excerpt:

“Segmentation has its limits as a marketing tool. As marketers we are trained to look to focus on the differences, but unless the differences are meaningful, overreliance on segmentation can lead to a lot of wasted effort. It may not be as sexy, but searching for the universal, common ground can lead to even more profound insights, and more impactful and efficient marketing…Millennials share a set of common values that has enabled a few brands to deeply connect with a broad range of young consumers: Google, Apple, Heroes, and Teach for America come immediately to mind. These connections are based more on similarities among Millennials than differences.”

As with so many things, it’s about balance. Gen Y rightly resents any effort to reduce its marvelous diversity to a lowest common denominator (see “Gen Y to Marketers, All Millennials Are Not the Same” March 24, 2009). But ignoring the unique characteristics of this most unusual generation would be a detriment to marketers, and to Millennials themselves.