Businesses riding on millennial mania

Mr Jason Dorsey (left), 36, founder of the Center for Generational Kinetics, considers himself among the older millennials.
Mr Jason Dorsey (above), 36, founder of the Center for Generational Kinetics, considers himself among the older millennials.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

Gen M's dependence on technology is a leading indicator of where life is headed for everyone

New York - The makers of Tic Tacs had a problem on their hands. After 18 months of internal study, they had concluded that the all-important millennial generation might not be content with a mere mint.

No, the millennials wanted entertainment, release from boredom, "emotional rescue". So this month, a new and more amusing Tic Tac is coming to store shelves - the Tic Tac Mixer, which changes flavours as it melts on the tongue. From cherry to cola, for example, or from peach to lemonade.

It is yet another play in the millennial mania that is overtaking all manner of businesses and seems to be getting more obsessive by the day. Not since the baby boomers came of age has a generation been the target of such fixation.

But this has a 21st-century style of urgency - with 24/7 micropandering, psychographic analysis, a high-priced shadow industry of consultants and study after study. All cater to a generation, generally viewed as people born from about 1980 to 2000, whose youngest members are not even out of their teenage years.

Goldman Sachs has gone as far as to research what (older) millennials are naming their babies.

GameStop, a leading purveyor of video games, promotes its "insider knowledge" of the generation.

Even coffee - an industry that would seem to have the generation in the bag - is frothing.

"The reality is that Gen M-ers drink more speciality coffee than any other generation," wrote Ms Heather Ward, a research analyst. "As speciality coffee professionals, how do we make sure we are giving them the attention they need?" she said in a paper prepared for the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

But some analysts and consumers have begun to ask, what about the rest of us? After all, the millennial generation has less wealth and more debt than other generations did at the same age, thanks to student loans and the lingering effects of the deep recession. Although millennials are hailed as the first generation of "digital natives", the over-40 (and 50 and 60) sets have become adept when it comes to devices such as smartphones.

Still, this most coveted generation is huge - about 80 million strong in the United States, larger than any other demographic group. And it recently crossed a milestone: As at March, there are more millennials in the US workforce than Generation Xers or baby boomers, according to the Pew Research Center. The consulting firm Accenture estimates that millennials will spend US$1.4 trillion (S$1.87 trillion) annually by 2020, and they are expected to inherit about US$30 billion in the coming years.

"Why you are seeing the fervour now is just where millennials are headed - out from the younger part of their life stage to where they're in their first profession, they are getting married, having children and influencing more spending," said Ms Christine Barton, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group.

As a result, businesses are terrified that if they do not snare them now, they will miss the chance.

Last month, Whole Foods revealed that it would open a line of grocery stores "geared to millennial shoppers", with a "curated selection", "streamlined design" and "innovative technology". Not to mention lower prices.

The media reported the development earnestly. But some people noted that better deals on quality produce might have a cross-generational appeal.

Ms Robyn Bolton, a partner at Innosight, a consulting firm, responded in a post on the Harvard Business Review website questioning the generational theme.

Whole Foods, she wrote, appeared to be saying that "Gen X and baby boomer shoppers are fine with or even prefer old, cluttered stores that sell a confusing array of stuff at high prices".

The Republican National Committee took the generalising to a mockable extreme in last year's elections with an advertisement featuring a bearded hipster wearing glasses, bemoaning government regulation, a spot that was roundly parodied by British comedian John Oliver with his own bearded, glasses-wearing hipster.

Mr Jason Dorsey, who at 36 considers himself among the older millennials, founded the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, Texas, five years ago and is often invited to speak about his generation at conferences and events.

The centre, which advises corporate clients in many industries, focuses its research efforts on "generational context", he said, "not generational silos". Really, he and others say, millennials, especially their dependence on technology, are probably just a leading indicator of where life is headed for everyone.

"Being able to text message with a company we found is something every generation wanted to do even though we assumed it was just millennials," he said.

"Definitely we want to be inclusive of millennials, " he added, "but we don't want to forget the people who brought us to the dance."

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Businesses riding on millennial mania'. Print Edition | Subscribe