It's time to ditch the millennial tag
A view from Richard Huntington

It's time to ditch the millennial tag

Categorising people by the year they were born is not just bullshit, it is demeaning to our customers and, frankly, to our industry.

Peter Mead, co-founder of Abbott Mead Vickers, had a profound dislike for one particular word. An old-school adman from a modest background, Peter had huge respect for the ordinary people who bought his clients’ products. And, as such, he absolutely hated those who worked for him calling people "punters".

It wasn’t quite a fireable offence but, for Peter, the appalling lack of respect that it implied was pretty damn close.

It’s two decades since I worked at his agency but this is a lesson I have never forgotten and I share the same disgust for people who use demeaning language when talking about their customers.

I dislike the hideous batching and labelling of people created by most segmentation studies that reduce real human beings to nasty two-word descriptors, crushing their individuality and distancing marketers from the real lives of our audiences.

I would no more refer to anyone on this planet as a ‘millennial’ than I would call someone from my parents’ generation geriatric.

And I’m not overly keen on using the simplistic term "mums" to lump together 18 million British women into one homogenous group as if every woman’s experience of motherhood was identical. But I reserve my greatest ire for the stereotypes of generational marketing. You know the kind of thing: calling people Generation X, Y or Z, or that ghastly and offensive label of "millennials".

I would no more refer to anyone on this planet as a "millennial" than I would call someone from my parents’ generation geriatric.

It can never be right to categorise people, real people, according to the year in which they were born and then claim that as a result they exhibit behaviour and display attitudes that are entirely the same as each other and completely different to anyone else. This is not just bullshit, it is demeaning to our customers and, frankly, to our industry.

Of course, I understand why research companies and consultancies peddle this sort of rot. By pretending that in some way a group of people are different, unknowable or strange, they create a demand for their services. But it saddens me that professional marketers in both agency and client organisations slip into this behaviour too. Particularly when the descriptions of these groups exhibit such an absence of common decency.

The New York Times recently described "millennials" as "narcissistic, brash and entitled". I’m certain that there are plenty of people who were born between 1980 and 2000 who are narcissistic, brash and entitled, just as I know that there are plenty of people born at every other time in history who are narcissistic, brash and entitled. But all of them?

For me, the event that has thrown this whole sorry approach into stark relief is the recent General Election. An election in which record numbers of young people turned up and turned out and in which their votes played a critical and defining role in upsetting the political landscape.

It now appears that, at 57%, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds was 14 percentage points ahead of that of the 2015 general election. While, according to YouGov, turnout reached 64% among 25- to 29-year-olds – only five percentage points lower than the figure for the total population.

Young people came out in force on 8 June but, try as I did, I couldn’t find any of the "millennial" clichés on show that day – their engagement in politics was anything other than narcissistic, brash and entitled. And I certainly didn’t see anyone looking beyond the product and its characteristics to the purpose, motivation and ethos of the company that makes it and sharing these beliefs with their wide social network through their love of technology or any such "millennial" marketing twaddle.

I saw millions of young Britons who have been shat upon from a great height, saddled with debt, forced into low-pay gig-economy jobs and are seeing the value of their income decline, gnawed away by inflation, public-sector pay freezes and the economic stagnation that is squeezing the private sector. That’s what I saw. Real people, really struggling and really deciding to do something about it.

The sooner the marketing industry starts to engage with young people in a meaningful way, responding to the real issues that they face rather than clinging on to our pathetic and pejorative obsession with "millennial" marketing, the better for our businesses, our brands and the people that we all ultimately serve. For, if as marketers we are not the voice of respect, empathy and understanding towards our customers, what is our role?

Richard Huntington is the chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi London.