Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Director, Love & Wine and Co-founder, Gen Y Brand Specialists HOW&Y
Same river, different waters
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is an epigram that describes itself. A nod, in a world fixated with change, towards the inevitability of its opposite, unchange.
It’s typically change that gets all the excited press, and has done down the ages. Philosopher Edmund Burke called change “the most powerful law of nature”, prompting an echo in JFK’s “change is the law of life.” Archetypal psychoanalyst Karl Jung aligned the benefits of change with emotional and psychological acceptance. Sci-fi visionary Isaac Asimov called change – “continuing change, inevitable change” – “the most dominant factor in society.” And the late lamented Starman himself, David Bowie in his song “Changes”, celebrated the ineluctability of change in a paean to youth culture and rebellion against elders.
The Roman poet Ovid named his epic work, Metamorphoses, for the ubiquitous change it celebrated in all things. And this, five hundred years after Ancient Greece’s greatest pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus began it all, with his reflection, “you cannot step twice into the same river.”
This famous quote is typically taken as extolling flux over stasis, mutability over stability. However, implicit in those words is as much unchange as change. Yes, the steady coursing of perpetually different currents speaks of the inevitability of change. But the river’s ingrained ways, its banks and the landmarks that line them, and the very acknowledgement in the phrase “the same river,” speak to an equal and counterbalancing permanence.
Same river, different waters. Change within unchange – and unchange guiding change.
The business end of change (and unchange)
The corporate world has had lots of time to come to grips with the concept of change. Formal studies were occurring from the ’50s within the psychological field of group dynamics. Towards the ’90s, focus on the change phenomenon shifted to the dynamics within organizations, and change has been at the forefront there ever since – to the point where the concept and practice of change management is largely institutionalized and embedded in organization development.
Human needs and expectations, on the other hand, have remained relatively unchanged. Recently a lot of attention has been directed to evidence from psychological researchers (Quoidbach, Gilbert and Wilson) that personal change is something primarily identified with the past more than the future. Yes, the thinking goes, I have changed from my earlier years, but the values, interests and preferences I have now are stable.
If this theory, labelled the “end of history illusion”, is to be believed (and the research has its critics) then pressure to change at a personal level will encounter attitudinal as well as emotional obstacles.
The contrast between the realities of systemic variation across an organization, and the preference for status quo within its human elements, creates a natural tension. The most obvious manifestation of this (as any dog walker would know) is automatic resistance. This response is common enough to be part of organizational folklore. But that scenario is now being turned on its head, with a new generation that claims to be open to, and itching for, change.
The language of change talks in terms of “disruptors”, and specific examples can be found everywhere in the business media. Interesting as these are, to concentrate on this level is to miss the forest for the trees. The greatest source of disruption in the corporate world today is generational. Generation Y has brought us seismic change – in beliefs, mores, social behaviors, loyalties, personal and career expectations, and so much more.
Given its age range and population size, the Millennial generation sits at the intersection of the forces for change and unchange in the commercial world. Temperamentally, Gen Y seems to fit neatly in the change camp. But look past the superficialities and it could equally be seen as an agent for stability.
The fact is, it can be both. Gen Y consumers have torn up the marketing rule book and replaced it with their own, in a paradigm shift that won’t be reversed. That’s an unchanging reality marketers have to face. On the other hand, Gen Y employees could emerge as a force for stability and a resultant boon to workplace motivation and productivity. Such is the paradoxical nature of the Millennial generation, and the benefits accruing to organizations who take the trouble to understand its motivators.
Significance of Gen Y
They have been poked, prodded and pored over since long before they began to appear different. But Gen Y is well past the point of being patronized as oddities. Whatever one’s view of this generation, tolerant or critical, it cannot be ignored.
Three factors give this demographic an overwhelming significance.
First of all, its size. In 2015 Millennials passed Gen X as the largest proportion of the American workforce, with Boomers now in third place. And they have now also passed Boomers as the largest population demographic in the US. This growth makes Millennials pivotal in two key areas of the economy – employment and consumer sales.
What are we told about them?
Gen Y employee
Most attention has been directed towards Gen Y as employees. Expert opinion here appears driven by social beliefs – veering between opposites.
- indulging their young-at-heart-ness or treating them as intelligent adults;
- fostering ambition or recognising the reality of individual limits and differences;
- accepting dubious loyalty as a challenge or viewing loyalty as a 2-way street.
The relationship between management and Gen Y employees shouldn’t be based on ideology, but on mutuality of interest. Management needs to look past the embroidery factors and concentrate on what is central to the individual. And if that is the embroidery, then step away and allow them to be spoiled elsewhere.
More than any other in history this is a generation that’s persuaded by values. In all the cautionary worries about Gen Y, the irony is that the influence of these values allows more scope than ever for creating a work environment that’s positive to employees and productive to an organization.
Gen Y consumer
Although attracting less attention, Gen Y’s influence over the consumer world has even greater implications for business. A generation driven by values rather than needs is a game-changer for any B2C organization. It means the old marketing model is broken as far as the most significant consumer group is concerned, while remaining intact for earlier generational groups. As with the predictions and recommendations on the Gen Y employee, much of the commentary on the Gen Y consumer is unhelpful.
We can chart the stages (we can’t call it progress) in marketing attitudes to the Gen Y consumer, since their “agin’ the government” attitude first manifested. Beginning with:
- “nothing to see here, move along folks…”
Still prevalent up to a few years ago, this combination of insouciance and pig-headed denial, has few supporters now, having been quickly replaced by:
- “Of course there are some differences, but nothing we can’t cater for…”
Typically supported by a list of obvious, superficial and campaign-impractical characteristics carrying the subtext, “See, they’re not so different.” But differences continue to emerge, prompting a further, soft admission:
- “Thanks to our research we now understand the differences in Gen Y. Here’s what you must focus on…”
Circa 2015. Followed by another list of (usually five) less superficial but still largely loose and hazy admonitions. When these don’t fly, it’s interpreted as:
- “Too much variation in Gen Y to take a broad marketing approach. We need to break the demographic into age segments (17+, 25+, 30+), and focus on what their needs are likely to be…”
More market research, then, and focus groups, more going around in circles, where progress is measured by progressively smaller roundabouts. More failure to recognize and accept that we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift – not a shift in the rules, but a total reinvention of the game. That this group are not persuaded by the appeals that moved and continue to move previous generations.
So is abdicating the problem to the problem itself. Entrusting Gen Y targeted creativity to creative Gen Y-ers, as some marketers have sought to do, seems like novel progress. The difficulty is “Gen Y don’t usually get Gen Y” . They’re inclined to see the entire generation as a homogenous macrocosm identical to their tight peer-circle microcosm.
This is especially so in the case of those Millennials who stand as both taste-makers and taste-interpreters of their generation – those who work in media and marketing. “It’s increasingly remarked on that these gigs are more and more dominated by white hipster males. They see the world through a narrow and specific prism – inner-urban dwelling, bearded with retro-tats, café-culture by day and hole-in-the-wall bespoke-spirits-bars by night… It’s a legit sub-culture, sure. How dangerous, though, to have this singular mindset increasingly influential in defining Gen Y tastes and creating the messages aimed at mass-generational appeal.”