Not that different: millennials and boomers have more in common than they'd like to admit

  • Behavioural economics
  • August 5, 2016
  • Jeremy McDonnell
Not that different: millennials and boomers have more in common than they'd like to admit
(Image credit: http://alessandromanfredini.tumblr.com/)

Millennials. A complicated bunch at times. So how can we understand them when what they think doesn’t necessarily translate into how they act?

Much has been said about this group and how unique and disparate they are compared to other generations. And yes, there are distinctions that separate millennials from their boomer parents and their Gen Z children. But for every difference between these groups, there are many more similarities that cross the generational divide.  

From an evolutionary perspective, change takes time – and lots of it. It has taken hundreds of thousands of years to get to where we are today, so the idea of seeing radical changes from one generation to the next just doesn’t stack up.

While there aren’t any drastic differences between millennials and the preceding generations from a cognitive or physiological point of view, we do see deviations in the attitudes and opinions that millennials hold. And this is where the confusion creeps in.

It’s reasonable to expect that if I hold a certain attitude towards something, then the way I choose to act and behave in my everyday life will reflect that and thus be played out in the brands and products I choose to support.

Yet, real life doesn’t really work out like this.

In fact, new thinking from the behavioural sciences tells us that often the exact opposite is true – our behaviour actually drives our attitudes, not the other way around.

An extreme way of thinking about this is that you don’t always smile because you are happy, but you feel happy because you smile. And there’s science to back this up. In a particularly famous study, experimenters had participants rate the degree of humour in various cartoons. In some instances the experimenters would have participants place a pencil lengthways in their mouths, effectively forcing a ‘fake’ smile.  Those forced into the ‘fake’ smile went on to rate cartoons as more humorous than those who viewed cartoons with a neutral expression – the authenticity of the smile was irrelevant. The simple act of making facial muscles engage in such a way led people to see the cartoons as funnier.

I realise that this is not all that intuitive. When thinking about the attitudes you hold toward big topics like abortion or political ideology, they’re unlikely to change too dramatically over time. However, our pro-choice vs pro-life stance, or our thoughts on the merits of capitalism over communism, don’t play much of a role when considering what kind of pasta sauce to buy. It is the smaller—though no less significant—attitudes that determine how we navigate daily life.

The issue with this, however, is that attitudes are highly changeable. A study was recently conducted where participants were asked to give their attitudes towards certain topics. A week later, researchers asked participants why they had reported a particular attitude to a topic – deliberately presenting different attitudes to what participants initially stated. Not only did participants fail to notice that their ‘reported attitude’ was different to the one they had provided a week prior, many even went so far as to argue why these false attitudes are what they believe to be true and correct.

So while millennials may indeed hold different attitudes to previous and future generations, this doesn’t necessarily impact how they behave in reality.

In a study TRA recently conducted, 'The Listening Project – Millennials', we saw this disparity between reported attitude and behaviour clearly play out.

Millennials have come to expect that businesses are environmentally and socially responsible. They expect an enlightened, responsible approach to manufacturing and selling and consider social and environmental responsibility almost a hygiene factor. However, when we looked at shopping logs, haul videos and weekly transactional spend, we saw a very different story play out. What we saw was that millennials will often put aside their allegedly strongly held attitudes in order to save a dollar, as opposed to voting with it.

“Sometimes I wish I had the time to look into companies with dodgy practices that go against human and animal rights, but I don’t. Plus, I feel I would be a bit selfish and not be prepared to spend more on clothes if all the cheap stores were out.” – The Listening Project, Millennials

That creates an interesting “pick and mix” dynamic that sees millennials forgoe the ethical, organic (and pricey) option when it doesn’t suit them.

“I generally support brands that are fair trade and have ethical practices but I don’t always go for those options, especially if the price is quite a bit more... E.g. Pic’s NZ peanut butter $7 a jar compared to other brands.” – The Listening Project, Millennials

When it comes to navigating the aisles of the supermarket or purchasing a new outfit, these decisions are more likely to be based on habit and routine, rather than any strongly held attitudes. These everyday purchases involve a surprisingly low level of consciousness, which contradicts the current cultural narrative depicting millennials as conscientious, informed buyers. They may talk the talk, but fail to walk the walk.

This is not to say that millennials should be overlooked when trying to alter purchasing behaviour. Far from it. Millennials make great advocates, placing massive value in word of mouth. New-found freedom sees them trying to cement good habits, and these are often habits that will stay with them for life. This offers an incredible opportunity to directly influence millennials’ buying behaviour, at a critical time in their lives. 

And this attitude / behaviour contrast isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it can actually be something you want to encourage (or certainly not do anything to disrupt) at times. This is particularly true in any instance where people engage with your brand or products in a state of low-level consciousness - think cage laid eggs or the fair trade coffee that’s lacking on fairness. 

As far as practical implications go, retailers, category managers, NPD innovators, CX designers or anyone else responsible for how people engage with brands and products shouldn’t leap to rash decisions in the face of emerging Millennial orientated attitudes. What has sold well in the past is likely to continue to sell well in the future, since past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour.

But if you do want to realign this attitude / behaviour contrast then get prepared to take some significant action and make some noise - enough noise to snap people out of the habitual, non-conscious state of blissful ignorance they currently operate in.

And while Millennials’ attitudes may not always translate into behaviour, it’s not to be deceitful or disingenuous. It’s just that the way they feel about things doesn’t necessarily impact their behaviour. At least as much as we, or others, may like to believe.

  • Jeremy McDonnell is a research consultant at TRA.

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