Take 3, Scene 7: Understanding Millennials, Part 1

On this two-part episode of Take 3, 3Pillar’s Arty Rivera and Don Hiles join us in the studio to discuss the newest edition to the workforce: millennials. Millennials, sometimes known as Generation Y, are a subset of the population that are currently directly impacting the workforce.

Episode Highlights

  • Arty and Don dispel the myths surrounding what defines a Millennial and share their research-backed definition of the group
  • The two of them break down their research process, discussing the methods they put into practice and beginning to touch on their findings

About the Guests

Arty Rivera is a Senior User Experience Designer at 3Pillar, where he applies the principles of design thinking to conceptualize engaging and valuable user experiences.

Don Hiles is a Senior User Experience Designer at 3Pillar and he has a strong background in end-user communication and needs.

Read the Transcription

Julia Slattery: Let’s start off with the basics. Who are millennials?

Arty Rivera: That’s a more complex question than you might imagine. We started out with the definition, we kind of went to our sources so we started out with a Pews definition, which currently means 20 to 35 year olds as of 2016. That was where we started with our research, just to have a window that we could look at, but we quickly found out that there is a lot of perspective on what it means to be a millennial – different ways of looking at and measuring generations since it’s much more of a mushy thing, but than a set thing.

Don Hiles: One of the other things that we quickly found out is that there are a lot of us. So that became one of the primary reasons why we wanted to do this research, because we are one of the largest growing segments of the population.

Arty Rivera: And certainly one of the – not just the largest growing, but also as you mentioned, they are coming more into the workforce and soon will be the primary earning generation that exists, with a lot of companies out there interested in what millennials are interested in. One of the definitions that we eventually landed on is a generational definition based on life stages. It’s not so much about a strict year that defines a generation, it’s more about the formulated experiences that a generation has had, that makes it feel like they are a cohesive entity. And at the same time, one of the other major findings that we had is millennials are not a monolith. You can’t market to millennials as a single group, and if you are doing that, then you are probably oversimplifying or missing out.

Don Hiles: That’s exactly what we found. One of the reasons why we decided to take the approach of going beyond just this method of “you’re going to fall into this thirty-year bucket,” is because we found that in the research and the more people that we talked to, a strictly year-based demographic didn’t work because there are people who felt conflicted between “am I in this generation or am I in that generation?” That’s why we went with the approach of setting it up in the framework with these life stages that are very contextual and basically form the content of a person’s life journey.

So we took the millennial group and we created a series of formulated events that millennials may have encountered throughout their generation. Some of them include being born directly into the information pipeline, the Enron and all the other financial disasters, but our primary defining event is the after-effects of 9/11. This combined with everything else really starts to paint a picture of the psychographic portrait mixed with the demographic portrait of the entire generation.

Arty Rivera: Like I mentioned before, we started off with the definition of people aged 20 to 35 in terms of who are millennials. Once we decided to focus on these life stages, we found four primary life stages beginning with the “younger millennials.” These are people who are either in college, in some cases entering college, in many cases already in college or preparing to graduate. Of course, it’s correlated with age, but it’s not strictly speaking about age.

Don Hiles: One of the reasons why we started at precollege is because that’s about the point where the individual begins to have their own agency. Before that point, a lot of their decision-making is controlled by another individual. So we tended not to focus on any life stage that would not be considered congruent with a young adult.

Arty Rivera: The four life stages that we organized millennials around are Precollege, Continuing Education, Work-Life Integration, and Moving On Up. Like I mentioned, they are correlated to age, but they are not strictly speaking defined by it. So we discovered that each one of these stages has a more definable motivation that we can leverage to figure out how to market something to them, how to produce something for them, or what products to look at that would help them achieve what they want to achieve at a particular life stage.

We boiled it down to a pithy motivation for each one of them. So for Precollege, the motivation is “I want it fast, I want it now.” For Continuing Education, the motivation is “I want to be seen as unique and establish my identity.” For the Work-Life Integrator, it’s “I want to be connected to my world.” And for the Moving On Up, it’s “I want to make a difference in the world.” There’s definitely some connection to Maslow’s hierarchy going on there as well, which was another framework we were informed by.

Don Hiles: Also, we borrowed some structure from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs because we are calling these stages, but if you look at Maslow’s pyramid, you can consider each stage as a different level in the pyramid. All millennials will start at the first stage and eventually work further and further into a self-actualization. This gives us a little bit more of a framework; rather than saying “Okay, here are the things that happened in this pyramid,” this gives us more concrete and usable, actual data around how do you move on to that self-actualization part as you get deeper into the motivations? For the work life integrators, you can see they are very different and very much at that self-actualization part of the hierarchy of needs.

Arty Rivera: When you start with the abstract life stages and you focus in on those groups of millennials, the Work-Life Integrator, for example – it’s not unlikely that they have kids. I don’t have a probability assigned to that, but many millennials already have children, which is generally not something that is associated with the term millennial when it’s thought of in common parlance. If you are trying to target an audience that is Precollege or during college, their financial pictures, their family pictures, and their home pictures can be very different than a millennial that’s in a different life stage. So even as we are trying to answer the question “Who are millennials?”, we’re trying to say they are not one group.

Julia Slattery: So why does everyone seem to be worried about millennials entering the workforce? I know that’s a big fear that’s gotten a lot of traction in media recently.

Don Hiles: I would say that it’s a misinformed or misplaced fear. I think one of the biggest reasons is because there is a pre-existing picture that’s been painted of millennials. And now we have millennials entering into the decision-making positions or the purchase-influencing positions, such as millennials that are aged 25 to 33 in senior or executive positions that are now controlling entire organizational costs.

People are tainted by some of the existing concepts of millennials in the media and they feel this is going to be a very dangerous thing. But as we found in our research, there is the actual data versus the picture painted. It’s very different. When you boil it down, it’s really not any different than any previous generation. It’s probably the same complaints that a previous generation had about the next generation following them and so on and so on. I mean, people are always afraid of things they don’t know, and hopefully our research will help pull back the curtain a little bit, especially when we are talking about marketing to or interacting with millennials. Because as you see, through our framework process, we documented the motivations, the fears, the anxieties of this group, and none of them are outside what you would consider the scope of normal adult behavior.

Arty Rivera: To add to that, it depends on how we address the question. Let’s start with the obvious: people are interested in millennials because they are moving to becoming some of the primary earners and primary spenders. So financially speaking, it makes sense to look at millennials as an audience that you want to market your product or services to. A lot of people are interested in that.

Now the separate part, which Don began to address, was the cultural element. There’s a lot of intergenerational navel-gazing, especially on online media. During our research, we encountered a lot of op-ed pieces or opinion pieces about the work style of millennials versus the work style of Generation-Xers, and so on and so forth. We acknowledge that it’s there but, to be frank, we didn’t find any credible data to back up any overarching trends in terms of work effectiveness or productivity or that kind of thing. There were a lot of opinions floating around and there was definitely a lot of angst about different work styles, but since we didn’t find anything concrete to measure that with, the best we can do is acknowledge there is intergenerational angst but there’s not a lot of solid data backing up why that is. So we go to what Don was saying, which is there is always a lot of intergenerational angst when there are different work styles and all the rest of that.

With that said, there are other patterns that did emerge from the research that are unique to millennials that move beyond the scope of the question a little bit here. It’s not so much why we’re worried about millennials, but why are they interesting, why are they actually different outside the stereotypical reasons that people think of them as different.

Julia Slattery: Speaking to your research, you did a lot of research about how millennials impact the working world. Could you speak a little bit to your methods that you used?

Don Hiles: At the very beginning of our research process, we wanted to know what the picture of millennials looked like. We began to do some initial, very generalized research, and we held a workshop after we had synthesized our first round of research. In doing that, we found that a lot of what was out there was very broad and very general. We actually used only a few primary sources and then extrapolated on top of that, but there was a lot of it. After our initial round of research, we ended up with an internally-held workshop that was presented to both millennials and non-millennials to get really a good cross-sampling of answers to our questions. We then did another round of research, which – you can almost say – would be a meta-analysis of all the research out there.

Basically, we analyzed everything that we found that we felt was important. We looked at a number of different sources in a number of different industries and we went back to the Pew studies and some other ones, particularly some industry-specific ones. Essentially, we looked at a lot of primary research that’s already been done and then began to see what trends or insights we could identify out of that.

Arty Rivera: Don’s laid the framework really well, so I’m just going to add in a couple of details here and there. So in that initial, let’s call it the pre-workshop stage, we were looking at big patterns. First of all, we identified our own biases, so like “What do we think millennials are?” and then reflected them against something larger like publications – and we had a standard for trustworthy publications or publications of note.

Of course, we started with the definitional ones like the Pew research and that level of data. We looked at in-depth articles, whether it was about millennials and usability from Nielsen Norman, or articles about millennials and finance from Forbes. We even looked at articles that had some kind of concrete research around millennials and trends there. One very specific article, for example, was “Millennials and How They Impact the Wine Industry,” and I think that was an article from the Atlantic. There are actually many articles about that, but this one was from the Atlantic.

We were looking broad as well as deep, getting sources that talked about a specific industry to see kind of what metrics they were using, what metrics are being used to talk about millennials in the first place as well as the broader demographic data to use as a starting point. The whole goal of the research, however, was to move beyond demographic data and general feel and to get to something that’s actually actionable for businesses.

So we got a picture of what people think about millennials – after filtering out the op-ed intra-generational angsty kind of stuff that we talked about before – and we set up a workshop like Don said. The point of the workshop was to then query the people around us about their biases. We started out using a tool called a mind map, which basically helps people lay out their own biases. Then we had a very frank discussion about what biases we found in ourselves, and it was an interesting discussion because there were some stereotypical, negative perceptions that came out. We were actually very close to a 50-50 millennial and non-millennial mix in the workshop, which was very critical so we could have that dialogue across silos, as it were.

From the workshop, we generated a list of questions that people had, especially questions that pertained to their business activities – so what a project manager would want to know or what a business executive would want to know. We used those questions to then guide our deeper research because again, we wanted to deepen our research at the same time as we wanted to go in the direction of something that is actionable for business.

Don Hiles: And that was really the key thing we were looking at – there’s so much of information about millennials, but how do you make that business actually actionable. So that’s where we went in our next stage of research – really looking at all that research and figuring out, “Okay, we have tons of information about millennials, now how do we make all this information business actionable?”

Arty Rivera: That’s the narrative of how the research progressed. I’m going to pull out for a second and talk about why we’re looking at millennials. If you’re looking for something that is actionable, the general bias would be to look at some kind of industry data or industry segment first and then figure out how millennials fit into that. We very consciously decided to go through a more human-centered approach where we were looking at people first – people who happen to be millennials, since that was the focus of our research. We were very unpurposed; we wanted to be industry-agnostic in our conclusions – something that’s applicable to industries, but coming from a place that isn’t designed specifically for industries from the outset.

The reasons behind that are first of all, human needs change slowly. An industry might change very quickly depending on the technology that’s being used, on the platforms that are emerging or that are being disrupted. If you look at industry research, it has shorter half-life than if you look at the needs of people; the needs of people do change, but they tend to change more slowly than technological trends, for example. The way that those needs are addressed change quickly, but getting the knowledge about what those needs are is going to be the more evergreen knowledge. That’s part of why we took that perspective.

Furthermore, if you are looking at human needs, you are more likely to discover some untapped market opportunities or untapped needs that exist, as opposed to looking at how to make an existing industry or product more appealing. We were, again, putting on our clients services hats a little bit and saying there are questions out there, there are clients that want to know what’s next, where do we go, more strategic level questions. We want to be able to answer those questions outside of the box that already exists. Those clients have, very likely, already done a lot of research into market trends and demographics, so we tried to come up with something that gave them a new perspective.

Don Hiles: When we were discussing why we should take this approach, we decided that we were really looking for a problem in search of a solution, instead of using the industry lens of a solution in search of a problem. When designing a solution, your time is much better spent when you are addressing a direct problem. This is another reason why we went with addressing the motivations, anxieties, and relationships in our life stages because that way will allow us to tailor a solution directly to something that’s applicable, to something that is going on in a millennial’6s life.

Julia Slattery

Julia Slattery

Marketing Content Specialist

Julia Slattery is a Marketing Content Specialist for 3Pillar Global in our Fairfax office. She manages content for 3Pillar’s web properties, hosts 3Pillar’s ‘Take 3’ podcast, and assists with the production and editing of a wide variety of audio, video, and written content. She holds a BA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication from James Madison University.

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