Earlier this year, I was flattered to be asked to write for the kickoff of my alma mater’s special project. Illuminate is the Santa Clara University Alumni Association’s new endeavor to share thoughts and perspectives by thought leaders in the Bronco family. Here’s my first post. Check out the thinkpieces from other writers at Illuminate.
It’s 2:30 a.m., and I’m just settling in after two days straight of observing college students. Even if I wasn’t 2,830 miles from home, this research session would be a trip. In my work optimizing social apps for specific target audiences (turns out different groups of people always want different things!), the Millennial generation is a commonly mystifying and misunderstood, but yet, coveted population. They certainly love social apps – it takes no expert to come to this conclusion – but just why is that?
Basically, it’s true: Today’s college kids – “Millennials” – are so different. They frighten and perplex older generations. They inspire so much cynical press, workplace anguish, and disdain. But the more I work with Millennials, the more I am fascinated by them.
I remember reading William Strauss and Neil Howe’s theory on Millennials in Father Rhynes’ English class, and ultimately dismissing it because I didn’t like being pigeonholed – how Millennial of me! I was born in 1983 (generally Millennials were born between 1982 and 2004), so I’m on the cusp of being a Millennial, which makes observing the characteristics in younger Millennials equal parts exciting and terrifying.
I genuinely feel lucky to be spending so much time with this generation rising in the ranks. Even from my Elder Millennial end of the spectrum, I’ve found that staying conscious of the technological and pop culture conditions Millennials grew up in helps to explain some of their more baffling decisions and behaviors. Here is my theory of the four truths that define Millennial thinking:
- They grew up with social media. I remember sitting in the Orradre Library computer lab when my friend told me to join (the) Facebook. I had just “left” Friendster (Bad ex situation. It was temporary.), but soon gave in. And one day it was Twitter. And then later it was Tumblr. Nowadays it’s SnapChat, Reddit, WhatsApp, and countless other Next Big Things. Millennials have no problem keeping up because they are self-taught fast learners. They don’t do instruction manuals. They hop right in, because all the data has been laid out just waiting for them.
- They’re super mobile. Here’s a group that multi-tasks efficiently through micro-messages tapped out by thumbs. Mastering the two-handed QWERTY keyboard slows Millennials down. It’s no surprise that phones turned into extensions of identity: A phone is now a game, a movie, a book, and a passive way to keep up with friends.
- Celebrity culture is newsworthy. I didn’t “get” Paris Hilton when I was in undergrad, but in many ways, the most interesting player in Hilton’s one-time social circle is Kim Kardashian, former assistant/BFF. The Kardashian name is inescapable now, but it’s hard to imagine her empire forming five years earlier. The road simply wasn’t paved for this hyperawareness of public figures’ private lives back then. Us Weekly used to be considered a trashy mag, and now it’s a household staple. The machine of “reality” programming created a whole new recipe for building reputation: Anyone’s everyday life can now be made interesting with a few reliable catch phrases, fast editing, and a public stunt or two.
- They are constantly grooming public and private selves. All of these factors intersect, and this may be easiest to see in how an individual Millennial makes her or his social publishing decisions. Beautiful picture? Instagram. Witty thought? Twitter. Family-friendly? Facebook. And, as much as a social media dissident chooses to say nothing on social media, their nonparticipation says just as much. Millennials are their own PR agencies.
Interacting with college students day by day, there are commonalities across the board that sound ridiculous to anyone older than 30: Everyone’s a DJ. No one uses email. Who puts a CD player in a car?
In the end generational stereotypes are only as helpful as racial stereotypes, which is to say: not very. But what stereotypes try to achieve for simple minds prone to categorizing is predicting expectations about a group. In the case of Millennials, the digital, social, and public conditions of their upbringings come together to explain the direction of their collective thoughts. In work and in socializing, just as in performance, you’ll always do better if you know your audience, and understanding Millennials isn’t that tricky once you consider where and what they came from.
Information and technology move at such rapid clips, it’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen to the upcoming Homeland Generation (born 2005 and onward, there’s still much to learn and observe, but they are certainly “digital natives”). As wearable tech (Pebble) and predictive intelligence (Nest) make their ways directly into consumers’ hands, all I know is the synapses in a Homeland kid’s mind are going to be shooting off simultaneous messages and commands at a pace like erupting fireworks. Let’s hope that’s something to celebrate.
Read more by other SCU Broncos on SCU’s website. In case you ever get lost in the sea of words and ideas, just remember: I’m the Asian one under 40, happy to be your guide.