Falling for the millennial myth: Are you accidentally skewing your research to be less diverse?

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EVP & Group Director, Anthropology

How a common practice of understanding consumers and building products inadvertently biases the organization away from diversity.

In 2005, just a few months before he would take his own life, literary cult hero David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College in what is now considered one of the most famous commencement speeches of all time. He began his talk with a parable to describe how the most obvious and important realities of life are often the hardest to see or describe: There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

In addressing an audience of freshly minted university graduates, Foster Wallace was talking specifically about the trials of adult working life, and urged his young listeners to consider “simple awareness” as a survival method: awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.” “This is water.” Foster Wallace acknowledges how difficult this is. His commencement speech is a challenge “to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out” and to dedicate ourselves to constantly looking at the world around us in order to assess where we are and what we should choose to do. This is the value of education, he says. It is not about knowledge. It is about embracing awareness. Water is a metaphor for unconsciousness and for how, when you are so deeply immersed in something, you rarely question it — like a fish who is forever swimming through water but unaware that its surroundings are water. Or, like a researcher who is unaware of the frame through which they have been programmed and conditioned to view their subjects. As a result, they fail to discover rich insights because their field of vision has been reduced by adhering to the status quo. The frame we’re referring to here is that of generational thinking — generalizing human behavior based on the time frame within which they were born.

The concept of generations is a modern invention, first touched on by nineteenth-century European intellectuals and then coined and refined as a term by sociologists such as Karl Mannheim and others. During this period, it became popular as a way of distinguishing between the younger and older generation and was used to make sense of the power struggle between these two groups. Ironically, despite Mannheim and others’ attempt to call attention to the fundamental flaws of generational thinking during the early twentieth century, the framework of generations has become the standard way of evaluating human behavior and trends today. And it is unknowingly making organizations and their products less empathetic to diversity.

The problem with generational thinking is that it removes the possibility that individuals are capable of acting beyond the parameters or constraints of their generational location — which in and of itself is a rather arbitrary demarcation (who or what determines when a generation begins and ends?). It is also a perspective brimming with reductive bias and stereotypes, often using the white middle class as its unspoken reference point. Take into consideration these critical examples provided by journalist Rebecca Onion: Palmer H Muntz, then the director of admissions of Lincoln Christian University in Illinois, noticed that plenty of kids he encountered on visits to less-privileged schools weren’t intensely worried about grades or planning, like the stereotypical millennial. Fred A Bonner II, now at Prairie View A & M University in Texas, pointed out that many of the supposed “personality traits” of coddled and pressured millennials were unrecognizable to his black or Hispanic students, or those who grew up with less money. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia, told Hoover: “Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotry.”

When we rely on sweeping generalizations of a group of people based on one isolated variable (such as year of birth), there are other, very significant pieces of information that get left out of the picture. Such as the underlying beliefs and values that drive human behavior. Or to be more colloquial, where people come from and where they’d like to go. As anthropologists, we are already a rare breed in the world of business. But we believe we have been put here for a purpose — to educate organizations and their leaders on the innate biases and dare I say even discriminatory practices that they inadvertently and unknowingly use on a regular basis. Generational thinking is one of them. You see, most executives misunderstand the impact of globalization on culture, and there is historical precedence and significance to why they think this way. Most believe that because of the hyper-connected nature of our world today, human beings are becoming more alike. That is, they believe that our cultures are converging or gradually becoming more and more homogenized. It is for this reason that they feel more than comfortable assuming that a generation feels and acts a certain way. It is for the same reason that they feel even more comfortable believing that the future of any product or industry or trend is being shaped by younger people, especially those under the age of 30.

The truth is that our culture is diversifying.

If you rewind just ten years, as an anthropologist tasked with studying people’s political beliefs, I would have needed about 6 or 7 major belief-buckets or archetypes to explain how people think about politics and the major issues that drive their beliefs. Today, I would need more than two dozen such archetypes in order to not only explain people’s political beliefs but also highlight the different nuanced variations within them. It is exactly for this reason that we are now in an age where the major billion dollar brands are losing their value while hundreds and hundreds of million dollar brands are gaining and occupying niche markets and cultural spaces, happily delivering unique solutions to smaller segments of the marketplace.

As researchers and as leaders that work for large organizations, we all love to talk about diversity and we actively try to study and include more diverse voices in our understanding of the consumer. But unless and until we understand and acknowledge the hidden meanings that make up the commonly used frames and research practices that we employ on a day to day basis, we will never truly be able to embrace diversity within our organizations and have it reflect in the products and solutions we create. And more importantly, we would never really be able to compete with the increasingly more powerful community of entrepreneurs and small businesses that are out-competing even our most prized categories and services.

This article has been re-purposed from our recently published book titled Microcultures, co-authored by Jason Partridge.

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