Were Millennials Just Figments of Our Fevered Imagination All Along?

Fear of Youth Demographic Overblown as Invasive Alien Species Grows Up

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If you're reading this somewhere in the continental U.S. right now, there's a good chance you're snowed in, dangerously low on bread and milk, and have moved beyond weather panic, groundhog-induced rage and cabin fever into a state between hibernation and death.

But fear not, spring is only 20 or so days away. And we all know what spring means! The first signs of advertising awards season. Lions and Pencils and Cubes, oh my. (Cubes? Someone start an award show that hands out Tigers, please.)

Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

While we're all warming ourselves with heated debate over who or what will be the next "Epic Split," I'd like to propose a lifetime achievement award for the marketing consultants who've had an entire industry living in abject fear for the better part of the last 10 years.

Fear of climate change? Fear of nuclear armageddon? Fear of drug-resistant airborne Super Ebola?

No. Fear of millennials, an invasive alien species so unlike everything that came before them that, gosh darnit, you're going to need to rip up your entire marketing and media plans. While you're at it, hire them fresh out of college and anoint them exec VP of something. But don't demand that they work a regular workweek because these kids, these precious little flowers? They're not having it. And just stop trying to sell them cars, because they care so much about the planet that they're never driving again.

If that sounds ridiculous, it is. But that's the world most of us are living in.

And it's an imaginary one!

I don't blame marketing consultants. Like any good marketers, they created a need and filled it. And they weren't alone in this world-building.

Publishers helped. Because if there was one thing that guaranteed some cheap and easy web traffic, it was writing about millennials.

Why was this such traffic gold? Basic human nature. Old people love to hate young people. And people can't resist reading about themselves. Each millennial piece sprouted its own little ecosystem as millennials tried to defend their generation. (Note to the yewts: True wisdom is just letting the olds grouse. Once we get it out of our system, we'll fall asleep.)

As it turned out, some of the most truthy-sounding pieces came from journalists and "thought-leaders" (slap me with a tuna if I ever use that phrase outside of derisive quotation marks) who, having previously abandoned suburbs for "creative" jobs in urban centers, suddenly turned up scads of evidence that the suburbs were dying as a millennial mass exodus moved to urban centers for "creative" jobs.

Which made the marketing consultants happy, because it lent a scientific sheen to their fear campaign. Even if it was an unhealthy mix of bad research and confirmation bias.

According to a January story in The Wall Street Journal about population migration, urban cores have recently seen population growth that "rivaled suburbs in percentage terms." "Rivaled" does not mean "exceeded." But wait, there's more: "Trulia's chief economist, Jed Kolko, says 'old patterns have returned' and 'suburbs are now gaining population faster than urban neighborhoods.' Surveys by both Trulia and the National Association of Home Builders suggest millennials still desire suburban homes."

As the kids say, WTF?

Millennials are getting older. They're getting married, having babies and moving out of mommy's house. And it turns out they're just people.

There are smart millennials and dumb millennials, annoying millennials and charming millennials. Lots of them did move to the city, where they grew up to become anecdotal evidence in shoddy feature stories. But lots of them stayed in suburban and rural areas, went into nursing or law or plumbing, ate at Chili's and McDonald's, didn't shop at a farmer's market for artisanal seasonal root vegetables and were never the subject of a 1,200-word feature in Thumbsucker Daily or on MarketingHysteria.com.

Are there some differences between millennials and the rest of us? Obviously. The most noticeable and drastic change is in media consumption. But you know who else's media habits are drastically changing? Everyone's!

Ultimately, millennials were young people like other young people before them: idealistic, loud, eager to try new things. They did grow up a little slower. But they have grown up. As my colleague Maureen Morrison previously reported, in the next decade, 80% of millennials will be parents. Once the babies come, millennials start bargain-hunting for deals on toothpaste and soap and brooms and minivans.

And their media habits will continue to change. I won't be so brash as to predict that in 10 years, millennials will be glued to the recliner watching "CSI: Portland" before passing out. But once you hit 35 or so and are running kids to Little League and soccer, cord-cutting and time-shifting -- hunting down your entertainment -- starts to feel like just another job.

All of which is good news for marketers. Sure, advertisers have to face new media realities. But ultimately, what has always mattered in marketing still matters: creating products that people need or want -- backed by messaging (whatever form it takes) that makes people think they need or want those products.

So take a deep breath. Put the hype behind you. And remember this when the marketing consultants start yammering about the iGeneration or whatever stupid name they affix to whatever's coming next. There is nothing to fear.

In fact, in this long winter of 2015, there's a millennial out there somewhere -- maybe more than one -- pushing a noise-polluting, carbon-spewing snowblower up and down the driveway so his wife can get to work and he can drop the kid off at preschool before hitting the grocery store. He has a shopping list a yard long.

That's not very exciting. But it is interesting. Especially if you sell snowblowers.

Ken Wheaton, the managing editor of Advertising Age, writes our Last Word column. His latest novel, "Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears," was published in 2014.

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