Am I the post-teenager that I feared?

A little while back I was talking with my family about our generations. More specifically, I was trying to find perspective over the struggles I was facing as a young person. I’ve always found it easy to adopt the ‘we have it so hard’ narrative (as I’m sure a lot of young people in past generations have), but how different are we from our parents, really?

My mom went to Queen’s University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in the 70’s — a typical Canadian Baby Boomer. She (mostly) paid her own way through university, as I did. She found an entry-level job upon graduating, as most did. She realized an adult life over the course of her 20’s, as I am doing now.

Conceptually, none of the elements of growing up are different from her generation to mine. However, my schooling was more expensive, the entry-level jobs more competitive, and major life milestones like buying a house or starting a family are regularly pushed into our 30’s. With that being said, my suggestion that life is now harder for young people did not go over well.

“Karl, did you know that there wasn’t even such a thing as teenagers when I was growing up?”


I was taken aback by this.


“What do you mean?”


“Well, you were either a kid, or an adult. People your age have more time to figure it out.”

She explained that when she was a kid, you were often categorized by your physical size. If you were a big 15 year-old, you’d better get a job – being forced into adulthood at a young age was hard. By the time she became 13, however, there was something in between a kid and an adult – a ‘teenager’. I was immediately fascinated by this, as I’d never considered there might exist a part of life that was culturally ‘discovered’.

So, I researched it. The first mention I could find of the teen-ager (at the time carrying a hyphen) was Time Magazine’s LIFE in 1944, although the concept didn’t develop broad appeal until the late 50’s. In the article there is a fabulous set of photos, describing jovial young people without a care in the world. Intertwined amongst the photo essay done by the magazine, however, lay a further musing.

“American businessmen, many of whom have teen-age daughters, have only recently begun to realize that teen-agers make up a big and special market. . . . The movies and the theatre make money by turning a sometimes superficial and sometimes social-minded eye on teen-agers.”

Interestingly, the invention seemed to have less to do with culture than economics. World War 2 was ending, and a new era of capitalism and western economic fortune was upon us. This meant a new sense of security for young people, and with it disposable income passed from parents to children. Completing high school was quickly shifting from attainable for some, to attainable for all. ‘Real life’ was postponed for a few years, and this encouragement produced consumer characteristics that were neither child-like or adult-like. As a new demographic was born overnight, it looked like a marketer’s dream.

As I continued to read, the story became more and more familiar; the invention of the teenager share similarities with the modern 20-something narrative. And although the post-teenager consumes differently than teenagers from 60 years ago, they are labelled in the same way. The internet continues to be plastered with Millennial wallpaper, and I can’t help but think of the unassuming teenagers of the 60’s being plotted against by Big Advertising.

This post-teenager existing as a unique and independent demographic isn’t novel. With all the talk about the delay in major life events for young people, this is implicitly referred to all over the place. Nevertheless, the context is compelling. How does this demographic change impact contemporary marketing initiatives?

I’ll take the salary... I guess

Silicon Valley. The Internet. Smartphones. As the previous century was defined by strength, the 21st century will be defined just as much by cunning. Along with that, the stereotype of the 20-something college dropout entrepreneur is emblazoned in modern pop culture. But wait – make sure you don’t forget the dedicated hoverboard lanes, flat corporate structure, and gluten-free options at the prepared lunch table. Could entrepreneurship be this romantic?

There exists a narrative surrounding the millennial generation as having a propensity towards entrepreneurship unseen since the Industrial Revolution. But data would suggest just the opposite. The share of people under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s, and is at a quarter century low. John Lettieri, senior director for policy and strategy at the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), said that Millennials are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation in recent history.

There are clear-cut statistics on student debt as a contributing factor, but a recent Ernst and Young poll would suggest that this entrepreneurship trend could carry further cultural significance. The poll says that millennials are more inclined towards the idea of entrepreneurship than previous generations, but they choose to apply for jobs instead based on the state of the economy and general concerns about financial security. This might be a starting point to decipher this misconception.

Growing student debt, the recession, and a deteriorating middle class have all had profound impacts on the millennial generation. 51% of people from a Harvard University poll disagreed with the principles of capitalism. However, 30% think the government should do more to reduce income inequality, and just 27% of respondents say the government should have more responsibility when it comes to regulating the government.

According to this data, the Millennial generation believes regulation and social security has a place in society, although the in-depth analysis tells us the consensus role of regulation remains undecided. This would suggest that pure trickle down economics has established itself as a non-viable economic system within this group.

This sentiment heavily contrasts that from just a generation ago, where a 1991 study by the Library of Congress identified Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book amongst readers, behind only the Bible.

Risk aversion affecting many facets of life

The data paints a picture of a general movement away from risk, and the effects of this are not only seen in declining entrepreneurship. A large delay in other major life events such as home ownership, marriage, and moving out of a parents home could indicate that entrepreneurship will follow the same delayed pattern.

We’ll have to wait and see if this risk aversion turns out to be a responsible characteristic or an economic impediment.

Millennials making money — a scary thought?

Entitled? Maybe. Sensitive? Sure, relatively. Lazy? Okay come on. Yeah, Generation Me is a thing, but the noticeable generational gap can’t be that black-and-white. One thing is for certain though; Snapchatting, memes, and cat videos aren’t going anywhere.

Millennials have officially surpassed Baby Boomers in population to become the world’s largest generation. And with this generational shift, buying power will also be transitioning. According to PwC , Millennials currently comprise 25% of the global workforce, and will be upwards of 50% of overall workforce by 2020. As the much-maligned Millennial generation develops a real income, how does this change the marketing landscape?

Let’s talk about the definition of the millennial generation first. Generally, millennials are thought to be anyone born between 1981 and 2000. Beyond age though, the defining element of this generation largely corresponds to one thing – greatly increased connectivity. The ongoing growth in this area creates a platform for each person with an unprecedented (and constantly growing) size. Forming relationships is as easy as a button-click, and interaction has become increasingly remote. Just a generation ago, communicating with an amount of people that great seemed unfathomable.

This increased connectivity changes social dynamic and the consumer profile entirely. As these social pathways mature, young people are flooded with all sorts of ads leading to not only sensory overload, but a far-improved critical mind towards advertising. In a subtle hint of irony, what might have been thought of to be a marketer’s dream has turned into a much different reality. Heightened connectivity has made it even harder for brands to connect with young people. As a result of this, millennials look to peers when figuring out what to buy.

*cue music for influencer marketing to enter*

If you’re saying to yourself “wait a second, this isn’t a new concept!” then you’re absolutely right. Think Marilyn Monroe selling perfume, or Michael Jordan selling shoes. For a long time, these large-scale endorsement deals imposed influence over the consumer in an impactful way. These types of macro-influence campaigns still exist, however the key change is that young people communicate with each other far more than any advertising campaign can these days.

This concept of micro-influence is trending towards essential. Earned media, native advertising, and sponsored content are all examples of different ways to chop up the same idea. The common motif is generating organic buzz amongst a defined and connected market segment.

So if you’re wondering why people keep talking about the experience, brand ambassadors, and native content as key adaptations for the millennial generation, micro-influence might be a good place to start.