Ever since it became irrefutably clear that Generation Y (or Millennials, commonly defined as those born between roughly 1980 and late 1990s) would outnumber the vaunted baby boomer generation, nonprofits and for-profit businesses alike have been talking about the need to prepare their respective organizations for this massive population bubble. When data emerged that members of Gen Y might think and communicate differently than the generations that preceded them, organizations kept talking. “The millennials will be coming soon,” they said. Indeed, many less-prepared organizations are still saying it…
The fact is: The millennials aren’t coming. They’re here now. And the time has finally come when organizations will start to sink or swim based on how effectively they engage this demographic.
I am a Millennial. For better or worse, my colleagues at IMPACTS will quickly confess that I embody nearly all of the general characteristics that define my generation (I’m an over-educated, hierarchy-denying, collaborative, public service motivated, “super special,” connected, social media addicted, perhaps-a-bit-professionally-high-maintenance, optimistic, parent-loving, digital native). Despite all this, I seem to have slipped into a rare space: I’m a member of Gen Y who works almost exclusively with the baby boomer leadership of multiple organizations. In this way, I like to think of myself as an ambassador for my species.
And I think it’s a strange place to be. Though it’s in me as well, I cringe when I see members of Gen Y break the chain of command and grab the CEO of a large organization in the hallway just to bowl him over with handfuls of underdeveloped ideas. By the same token, I feel uneasy when boomer leaders dismiss those same Gen Y “idea nuggets.” Or worse, when they imply that millennials “are just like my kids. And my kids don’t run my organization.”
Take it from a millennial: Gen Y can be insufferable at times. But, yes, they do and will run your organization. It’s not necessarily because they are smarter, faster, better or wiser than other generations. It’s simply because they are bigger. Much bigger.
Here are five fast facts that nonprofit and business leaders must embrace in order to effectively manage, market and operate their organizations:
1) Millennials represent the single largest generation in human history.
Until Gen Y came along, baby boomers represented the largest generational demographic in the United States. However, millennials aren’t nicknamed the “Echo Boomers” for nothing. At nearly 90 million strong, millennials have baby boomers outnumbered by an estimated 20 million people. As boomers age, the divide will continue to grow. This statistic alone should be more than enough to make executive leaders pause to consider the future of their organizations, but there’s more to this quick fact that should inform organizational development and a marketing or PR strategy: Millennials are not only the largest, but also the most educated, underemployed, optimistic, plugged-in, nonreligious, and democratic generation in human history. These characteristics will meld to affect how your organization engages constituents, donors, and customers.
2) Millennials are the first-ever generation that will run America for at least 40 years straight.
Millennials who have children are not having as many of them as their baby boomer parents. Moreover, Gen X (which is only roughly half the size of Gen Y) has neither the volume nor is actively having enough children to indicate the coming of another large generation. Simply put, America’s birth-over-death rate is not increasing. What this means is that – unlike the position of the baby boomers who had more children and at a younger age – millennials will remain the largest generational demographic in the United States for a much longer period of time than the baby boomers. Due to their size and the current birth-over-death rate, IMPACTS data indicates that Gen Y will remain the largest generation in existence for the next 40 years (at minimum).
This is significant information from the standpoint of an executive leader. Nonprofit organizations and businesses may be tempted to invest resources in cultivating members of other generations (or even in learning the values of Generation Z as they come of age) – and this may be a good idea at times – but no generation within the next four decades will have the size and potential buying power to influence your organization more than Gen Y.
3) There are more millennials in the U.S. than any other age group.
Though many organizations still prefer to consider millennials to be a demographic that will “someday” affect them, millennials already make up the largest living population cohort in the United States. If you want to generally aim marketing efforts to engage only one demographic, Gen Y has the most targets. Moreover, the youngest of this age group are forming personal consumer habits as individuals. The oldest of this generation are having children and shaping the consumer behaviors of their families. In other words, right now is a good time to pay attention to these folks.
4) Millennials will have the largest buying power in the U.S. by 2017.
Millennials are predicted to surpass baby boomers in buying power by 2017. If your organization is not already strong in the habit of marketing to millennials, you may be operating at a loss until this new way of thinking becomes ingrained in your strategy.
While knowing that Gen Y will reign supreme in buying power by 2017 is critical, organizations may also benefit to pause and consider that, right now, millennials are a very close second to baby boomers in current buying power. Organizations often get misled and mistakenly focus their engagement efforts on the “next generation” of buying power in purely chronological terms (i.e. Generation X). But because Gen Y is twice the size of Gen X, its sheer numbers dwarf the market potential of its nearest elders. When considering your organization’s programs and audiences with regard to resource allocation, this may be important to keep in mind right now.
5) After the 2012 election, millennials will largely determine the outcomes of the following six presidential elections and the public policy priorities that will affect your organization.
If you’re not a millennial, the 2012 presidential election will be an important one for you – whether you realize it or not. Again, due to Gen Y’s size and the ever-dwindling numbers of traditionalists and boomers, millennials will largely determine the outcomes of the following six presidential elections. Will all other generations still have an equal vote? Of course. But because they make up the largest generational demographic within the population by such a large measure, the outcomes will be determined by millennials. Or rather, it will become impossible for a candidate to win an election without appealing to millennial values.
Think about that for a moment: If you’re operating an aquarium or a zoo, might evolving generational sentiments concerning captive animals pose an existential threat to your current business should new legislation restrict the capture and/or breeding of certain species? How would a significant overhaul of the tax code – one that dramatically limits or eliminates the tax-related benefits of charitable contributions – impact your organization’s business model? For an already platform agnostic generation used to consuming content on their iPads, how would the deregulation of broadcast airwaves and bandwidth affect the viability of a live audience-supported performing arts venue? Yes – Millennials will elect Presidents…but, perhaps more importantly, they will set the legislative agendas and public policies for the next many decades.
Many folks – millennials included – may find these facts terrifying, but they are true and inevitable. Though how we react to them is up to us, one thing is for sure: organizations that do not work to appeal to and engage with millennials may have a difficult time not only remaining relevant, but, indeed, surviving. Your more traditional consumers just won’t be calling all the shots anymore.
In fact, they already aren’t.
About the author
MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore