It has also been argued that Generation Y is socially conscious and philanthropic. So much so that, according to one report, 87 percent of millennials gave a financial gift to nonprofits in 2013, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been described as the “new religion” of the generation. The recent surge of true-to-life and socially-minded marketing campaigns used by brands, from Dove’s Real Beauty campaign to Cheerios’ interracial family commercials, has targeted millennials by appealing to their personal values. Gone are their grandparents’ days of playing up customers’ insecurities in order to sell products.
But if the assumptions of millennials’ personality traits are accurate, then how can this coddled and self-centered generation be so thoroughly invested in the well-being of others? What has enabled the seemingly contradictory characteristics of this generation to develop simultaneously?
The roots of these shared traits lie in millennials’ upbringing. There is little question that the baby boomers have reputations as well – specifically, as helicopter parents handing out endless rewards, who grew up with a change-the-world attitude of their own. Perhaps millennials have been raised to believe that each individual is a sparkly, special snowflake, and each accomplishment big or small worthy of reward. Perhaps the desire to make a difference was handed down to them. Perhaps the empowerment of oneself has translated to a desire to empower others in turn.
Perhaps it is all of the above. But a parent or guardian’s impact is only one factor in the upbringing equation. The adage that it takes a village is true, whether that village makes an intentional effort to raise a child or not. And the social events that helped shape millennials’ upbringing have given Generation Y a unique window to the world.
Millennials have grown up with constant access to information from around the globe – in chat rooms, on instant messenger, and through emails. Cable television, smartphones, tablets, personal computers, social media and the Internet have enabled them to connect anytime, anywhere, with anyone. And at no time were the effects of this digital revolution so strongly felt as in 2001.
The September 11 attacks undeniably had a profound impact on our country, including the ways we obtain and consume information. At a time when connectivity was beginning to gain speed, the 2001 attacks exacerbated a decreased reliance on traditional media forms such as daily newspapers and local news programs. Instead, Americans went online. They went to 24-hour news channels. It was the perfect storm, spurred by a combination of national tragedy and technological innovation. Traditional outlets were forced to change their methods of delivery, their newsroom schedules, even their business models to catch up with their migrating audiences, but the effects of this still linger today.
Also a coming of age for Generation Y, the attacks opened many millennials’ eyes to a larger world of suffering. They were able to read about and view imagery of the victories and tragedies of others in real time from across the world, and they were able to connect and assemble with others for action. They found their voices and their values in that pivotal moment in history.
As previous generations have carried their personal yet shared realities with them through their lives, so have and will Generation Y. As the GI Generation and the Silent Generation were affected by scarcity of resources during The Great Depression, and the provisioning of them during the World Wars, millennials’ values and purchasing behaviors have been shaped by their life experiences as well.
Technology and connectivity have opened their eyes to the injustices of the world, giving them a developed sense of global interconnection, and Generation Y expects brands to express similar compassion. Millennials not only expect brands to verbalize their values – they require validation of those companies’ values across their communications channels as well, whether through product development, quirky commercials or CSR campaigns.
Clearly, much more can be said about the upbringing of millennials and its larger cultural impact than I could ever hope to address in this post. But ultimately, if this generation’s demands for CSR and social justice make a better world a reality, challenging brands by elevating the business and communications standards to which they are held, then who’s really complaining about millennials’ sense of entitlement anyway?
*Disclaimer: I am a millennial.