This is an age group bookended on one side by those raised on TV images of the Vietnam War and on the other side by those who grew up watching MTV. The demo also witnessed the deadliest attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor.
"9/11 without question is the defining moment for this 18-34 generation, and it will continue to forever be," says David Morrison, president and founder of Twentysomething, consultants on the young adult market.
Such uncertainty has led this group to seek lasting value in both relationships and products. Family and meaningful employment have become more important, as have luxury brands. "Because there's so much uncertainty from day to day, from year to year, you need to indulge yourself much more than ever before," Mr. Morrison says.
That's quite a statement, considering their predecessors, the baby boomers, are no slouches at consumer self-gratification. If you were to give 18-34s their own moniker, perhaps it would be the Bling Generation.
"Young adults are watching lots of indiscriminate discretionary spending taking place on TV," Mr. Morrison says. "The bling is everywhere. This is the Bling Generation. Whether or not they actually buy into it, it is resonating all around them."
Technology and luxury are two things this generation clearly desires.
"In terms of the big picture, they're at the leading edge of technology," says Cary Silvers, VP at GfK NOP Consumer Trends. "They're more likely to use it all across the board and set the pace as their even younger counterparts do. They're sort of glorified teenagers with money, and with the same love of technology."
While they're more likely to use the Internet than watch TV, this group does less of either than their elders. Males in this group spend 10 hours a week watching TV and 12 hours on the Internet, compared with the 15 hours of each reported by older males, according to Jupiter Research.
"They're less likely to buy CDs. They don't read newspapers or magazines. They spend a significant amount of time online and playing video games, so from a marketer's perspective you have to change your thinking about how you're going to reach these customers," says Michael Goodman, Yankee Group senior analyst.
HARD TO REACH
Adds David Card, a senior analyst with Jupiter: "They're hard to reach, period. The Internet is not a panacea for reaching this audience. They are elusive. They have other things to do with their time."
Their technological savvy also determines how, and not just where, they interact with brands.
"These are not people who are likely to be convinced of much of anything in a one-way, advertiser-originated, passive monologue with consumers," says Ira Matathia, veteran trend watcher and VP-development and integrated-strategy director at ad agency Taxi, New York. "That's not the way these people expect to be treated. That's not the way these people get information [and] build relationships with the products and services with which they do commerce."
And the marketing message "has to be interesting," says Lucian James, president of pop-culture specialist Agenda. "There has never been the amount of media opportunities that there currently are. Anything can be marketing. Brands need to shift their mind-set from selling at consumers to selling with consumers."
"They always tell us that they are not influenced by celebrities, and they were particularly vehement about this" in 2005, says Samantha Skey, senior VP-strategic marketing at Alloy Media & Marketing, which conducts the College Explorer survey of students aged 18-30. "However-more than ever before-you can chart connections between what you see celebrities wearing in the tabloids and what college students covet."
In the 2005 survey, for example, only 5% of respondents said they preferred brands they saw their favorite celebrities using, but the generation raised on MTV's "Pimp My Ride" and VH1's "Fabulous Life Of" still aspires to a materialistic vision of the good life. GfK NOP research notes that 51% of 18-to-29-year-olds said they would like to own an expensive car (13 points higher than the overall population), while 66% said clothes and jewelry define their personal identity (6 points higher than the overall population).
"There is significant brand awareness," Ms. Skey says. "They are not comfortable claiming to be materialistic necessarily, but they are in some cases."
MORE ACCEPTING OF BRANDS
This brand consciousness can represent an opportunity for marketers. Compared with their older counterparts, the younger end of this demo is more accepting of brands and branding in general if they deliver value.
"The older end of this group of consumers is Gen X and still sometimes believes that the world would be better if there were no brands and corporations weren't involved," Agenda's Mr. James says. "But the younger end realizes that increasing parts of culture are sponsored by corporations. It's no longer considered a good or bad thing. It's just a thing."
He adds: "In a world where we need to recognize and understand each other quickly, brands are an increasingly important way we do that. Consumers know what it means to hold a Budweiser, what it means to choose Grey Goose [vodka] and what it means to drive a Mini Cooper."
In the College Explorer survey, 31% said they preferred brands that are environmentally safe, 26% preferred brands that give back to the community and 20% preferred brands that are connected to a cause.
"This generation of young people is very instant-gratification focused," Alloy's Ms. Skey says. "For them, it is the perfect solution to be able to purchase a product they know is cause-related or has some foot in social responsibility. You can pay an extra 50¢ to get a socially responsible bottle of water and you can carry it around and it becomes a part of your brand-that social responsibility-but you don't have to really commit yourself to any significant amount of time."
Experts warn, however, that this group is far from monolithic. It's ethnically more diverse than its predecessors, and, as children of a fragmenting media world, its members may have even less in common with each other than previous generations.
"If 18-year-olds have very little in common with 34-year-olds, then it's also true that 18-year-olds often have very little in common with other 18-year-olds," Mr. James says. "This is a fairly scary proposition if you use traditional ways of targeting them."
Looking at the group as a whole, "there's a big difference between how 18-to-24-year-olds behave vs. 25-to-35-year-olds," says Jupiter's Mr. Card.
Statistically, 30-to-34-year-olds more closely resemble the group immediately older than them, though as the traditional march to adulthood and its trappings-marriage, home, children-erodes, the line becomes harder to draw based on age alone.
However, the traditional dream isn't dead, says Matt McRoberts, managing partner at Iris, a New York marketing agency that recently completed a study on thirtysomethings' often-delayed path to home and hearth.
"Folks want that white picket fence," he says. "However, they're not opposed to pushing that back a bit and looking at it later in life."
Lifecycle population: 69.0 million
As share of U.S. Population: 23.2%
White (Hispanic) 16.9%
White (non-Hispanic 60.6%
Other races 3.1%
Hispanic origin (Includes non-white hispanics) 18.3%
Top Male Name1: Michael
Top Female Name1: Jennifer
More info: census.gov; ssa.gov
Sources: Census Bureau population projections for 2006; Social Security Administration (names)