73% of millennials are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. 81% of millennials expect their favorite companies to make public declarations of their corporate citizenship.
These statistics from Nielson’s 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report, and others like them, are informing a popular view that Millennials are demanding businesses and organizations be more socially conscious and responsible.
So, are we to assume from this that people born between 1982 and 2002 (the Millennials) are more socially conscious than previous generations? If so, why would this be the case? Maybe we should take a step back from the popular view, and consider whether this is actually what the statistics are telling us, or is there something else happening here?
Are Millennials really all that different?
I challenge whether the Millennial generation are actually more driven by social causes at all, and put forward an alternative hypothesis. I have no specific evidence as such, but this is food for thought which challenges the current consensus and reading of the statistics.
The idea that ‘Millennials’ are more socially conscious than any generation before is a myth, and simply one interpretation of the evidence.
What I suggest has happened is that the self-identity of people within this generation (‘Millennials’) has become so enmeshed with their associations and relationships with consumer brands that they see brands as their best route to affecting social change.
Consumers, not citizens
The role of the person as consumer, rather than citizen, has been covered in great depth by academics such as Celia Lury in Consumer Culture. Being born in 1982 at the earliest, Millennials have only ever lived in a time when consumer culture was a pervasive force. Increasingly, the consumer is being considered as an ‘active’ consumer who can ‘add-value’. This value can be either financial or in the form of intrinsic or extrinsic benefits seen by the company or consumer, from ’McDonaldization’ where consumers provide immaterial labor (Zwick, Bonsu and Darmody, 2008) to ‘co-creation’ and ‘prosumption’ where the consumer is the ‘producer’ of unique value (Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010).
The role of brand in shaping self-identity
As a person’s role as an active consumer becomes more pervasive, the place brands have in shaping a person’s identity becomes more central. However, when previous generations were at the ages Millennials are now, the role that consumer brands played in their lives were different. A person’s role as citizen or civic activist was more distinct from that of their role as consumer.
Think of the social movements of the 50s, 60s, 70s – these were times when there were very active voices for social consciousness and activism, but simply not through the prism of brands and the role as consumer. The pervasiveness of the role as consumer has blurred the distinction between citizen and consumer.
Celia Lury put it this way, ‘Consumer choice’ is still the means by which our society thinks about individual agency and autonomy and makes judgements (good or bad) about personal identity. The significance of consumer culture is thus to be found in the fact that the individual is no longer judged by him or herself or by society in terms of how well they carry out their duty or responsibility in relation to some wider collective or external morality (‘the family’, ‘the community’, ‘the greater good of all’ or ‘God’s will’), but in terms of how well they exercise their capacity to make a (consumer) choice.’
Consumer brands have so co-opted the social and cultural landscapes, that young people see their role as consumer as that in which they have the most impact.
The self-identity of ‘Millennials’ has become so enmeshed with consumer brands, it seems their best way to encourage social change.
Affecting social change through the role as a consumer
Why is this distinction important? My argument isn’t that Millennials aren’t being more demanding of businesses and organizations to be more socially conscious and responsible, but that Millennials are no more socially conscious than previous generations and it is simply that they see their role as consumer as their best bet to affect social change.
As people working with brand, when we are considering how we understand and communicate to our audience it is vital to try to understand what the motivations are, and the reasons behind differences between peoples’ decision making. It is important to make our decisions based on quantitive metrics, but we mustn’t forget the need to look behind the numbers so that we fully understand context.
To best work with and shape brand we need to keep asking questions, and not simply accept the consensus opinion. Always interrogate the obvious.