Millennials Becoming ‘Minimalists’

Of all the impacts of the Recession, the impact on Millennial attitudes and shopping behavior may be the most lasting.

There’s no question, Gen Y has been hit harder than other generations by the double whammy of fewer jobs and higher student loan debt.  The result is a generation that is more consciously frugal and actively reconsidering the role of material possessions, luxury, sustainability, career in their lives.

The result may be a new Gen Y aesthetic, one that prizes minimalism and simplicity over luxury and status in the choice of homes, fashion, technology, travel and more.

A report by Price Waterhouse Coopers, “The New Consumer Behavior Paradigm: Permanent or Fleeting“, found there is a more careful approach to shopping and consumption across all generations, including Gen Y. Twenty-five percent of 18-27 year olds say their shopping behavior has ‘changed significantly’ and another 47% say it has changed somewhat.

“A more thoughtful approach to spending on luxury and non-discretionary goods is emerging. Shoppers are placing a premium on goods that exhibit qualities of timeliness, usefulness and versatility. Items that make shoppers feel like they are getting something that will hold its value for the money (rather than something that is going to go out of style next season or has limited, narrow usefulness) will be judged worth the investment. Shoppers also continue to look for goods that are “green” or sustainable and appear to be willing to pay a slight premium for green goods that also deliver a personal economic benefit—e.g., energy-saving light bulbs and appliances.”

My favorite source for culture trends is Tim Stock, professor of Design at Parsons School of Design in New York. This week he released a fabulous new presentation focused on the post-recession definition of  ‘luxury’ and emerging ‘culture codes’. According to Stock, “The recession left us acutely aware of the fallacies of finance and the need for sustainability.” At the same time “transparency is forcing us to confront the truths that lay behind the production of our favorite luxury goods.” (See NYT article “Why does this pair of pants cost $550?” for more evidence.)

Stock’s “Recession Codes” presentation (see below) goes one to explain that not everyone is responding to these pressures the same way. He describes four different segments, Purists, Passport Posses, Guilted Lilies and Brand Heavies.  Purists recast traditions in a new way while Passport Posses take a more irreverent stance toward fashion and luxury.  Guilted Lilies embrace nature and shun all kinds of ostentation. Only the Heavies have a more traditional view of the meaning of brands. This is powerful stuff and I urge you to at least flip through the presentation.

While Stock doesn’t limit his analysis to one generation, Millennials in particular seem to be embracing the concept of ‘traveling light’ as a way of life.

Many Gen Y-targeted blogs and articles provide advice to others on how to live the frugal life, avoid debt and aim for experiences over stuff.  A post from provides “10 Recession Fashionista Tips”, including “Plan Plan Plan”, “Cut back on the frills”, and “write down your debt in a place you’ll see it every time you spend money”.

Whether by necessity or choice, minimalism appears to be the new ‘chic’.

Basics are in. (Sales of Levi’s are on the upswing).

Complexity and clutter are out. (The biggest complaint about the iPad appears to be that it doesn’t do enough to warrant buying a new device.  Recycled and vintage are hot.  Even the value of an elite education is increasingly being questioned.

Further evidence of the new minimalist aesthetic comes from a blog post last week by Matt Cheuvront, an influential Gen Y blogger and the voice behind “Life Without Pants“. He writes of a “Rising Trend of Minimalist Marketing“:

“The minimalist trend isn’t rising, it’s here, it’s everywhere around us. We’re living in a society that ultimately wants less. We’re condensing our wants to meet our needs – and in a world in which we are absolutely inundated and bombarded with information – we value simple and effective over flash and glamour… I was in the store the other day buying some shampoo and something obvious was staring back at me – gone are the days of the bright pink bottles with crazy typography that scream “look at me”. Now we’re seeing rows upon rows of simple, clean, white bottles with easy to read fonts and clear “messages” about what that product will do for me. Calls to action are clearer, messages are much less fuzzy, and everyone, even Vidal Sasoon, is buying into the minimalist approach.

Will this trend last? According to Matt Cheuvront, minimalism is not the majority, but it is a growing trend for marketers. Many of the comments in response to his post seem to support the view that fewer gadgets, fewer things and more experiences are the way of the future.

“Minimalist living is something that resonates with me tremendously. I usually don’t get involved in predictions, but I think it’s safe to say that minimalism is here to stay. The thing that appeals to me about the whole thing is the simplicity. Everything stripped to the bare essentials. As a civilization we’ve gone to the extreme end of consumerism (at least in the Western countries) and are now realizing what’s really important.” – Henri J

“However you look at it, minimalism is SO appealing right now. People are sick of feeling overwhelmed. It’s a turn off. How do you appeal to people? Keep it simple. I think the future has simpler living in store with higher quality.” – Melissa G

“I’ve always been a big fan of minimalism in my life, globally, and is a part of all my decisions, particularly from an ecological perspective. I want as few packaged, processed, and plastic things in my life as possible. I live in a small space so that I’m not tempted by the suburban sprawl ethic of always getting more “stuff.” And once you get set in your more minimalist routine – life is a lot more comfortable. And I love seeing that minimalism of all varieties is becoming more mainstream.” – JennSutherland

“With regard to minimalism per se I think a lot of it has been forced by the current world economy which when, coupled with the likes of craigslist and ebay as a simple means to turn unwanted or unnecessary belongings into hard cash, has led people to decide whats important in their lives. I also think that the current economy has turned the traditional college-career-family trajectory right around. A LOT of people who were before totally career-driven (and therefore money-driven) have had that option taken away from them, not through choice, and instead have been forced to drive their energy and enthusiasm into other pursuits, such as enterprise and travelling (and blogging).”

“I am definitely seeing the minimalist marketing as a trend. I agree that as a society we are overwhelmed with information. I genuinely hope that this trend continues and I believe that it will. There is definitely a strong correlation with the “green” movement and the allure of minimalist marketing so I believe that this style of marketing will continue to grow.” – MelliMoore

This trend poses interesting challenges for marketers:

First and foremost they need to create functional products with fewer features, lower cost and lower environmental impact. Beyond this they must find new ways to make their brands meaningful and desirable now that anti-chic is the the new cool. One brand that seems to be ahead of the fashion so to speak is Urban Outfitters. A recent post on blog explains the source of its appeal.  Urban Outfitters creates a unique experience that mimics rummaging through a vintage shop in the East Village.  How chic can you get?