Advice From the Millennial Whisperer

Any publisher that’s not in the cat GIF or celebrity blogging game is going to have a rough time attracting readers down the line, according to the nation’s foremost self-styled expert on millennials.

Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, was conducting exhaustive research on millennials long before the word entered common parlance. Her findings formed the basis of her 2006 book, “Generation Me,” which painted the picture of a cohort of overconfident narcissists ill-equipped for the crushing disappointment of adulthood –  and launched a thousand think pieces.

Now, Twenge is incorporating new research into an updated edition of the book, due out in 2015. Digiday spoke with Dr. Twenge about millennials’ digital media diets, how marketers can capitalize on Generations Y’s narcissism and how managers can best handle their tender psyches in the workplace. Excerpts:

Has your latest research helped you glean any new insights?
It’s added more on the generation’s relationship to large institutions. We’ve known from previous studies that there’s more individualism, and that’s been confirmed by almost every study and every database. But what I had not looked at is, how concerned are millennials about other people? We looked at interest in government, interest in social issues, interest in the environment and so on. They were all lower among millennials than in Gen Xers and Boomers.

What do you attribute this to?
Over and over, the theme that comes up is the move toward individualism which is accompanied by a move away from collectivism. The U.S. has become a more individualistic and less collectivist culture over time.

How has digital media contributed to or reflected this cultural shift?
Narcissists have more friends on Facebook; they get more attention. It’s a platform that does seem to encourage or at least reward self-promotion. The conclusion we came to is, it’s a “chicken and egg” problem because it’s hard to say whether the narcissism that was there already is expressed on Facebook or if Facebook creates even more narcissism.

So Silicon Valley has essentially found a way to monetize our self-obsession?
That’s one way to see it.

Do you feel like millennials have been accurately portrayed in the media?
No. There are way, way too many stories that don’t bother to look up any actual empirical data at all.

In what ways are they inaccurate?
One common thing to see is that this generation really wants to help people and they want jobs where that’s the No. 1 goal and that they’re very interested in getting along in government. And that’s not true. They’re even less interested in that than previous generations.

Do millennials have any redeeming qualities?
Absolutely. One of the really big positive qualities is the growth of tolerance. They have pretty much taken for granted the notion of gender equality and racial equality and equality based upon sexual orientation.

What kind of advice would you give managers who have millennials on staff?
By far the biggest change is toward work-life balance. Things like not wanting to work overtime, wanting more vacation, wanting a job where there’s a relatively easy pace of work: Those are the things that changed the most over the generations.

It sounds like millennials are unambitious.
This is what the culture emphasizes, especially in the media. Overnight success and being rich and famous for no particular reason. In terms of expectations for the self, expectations are really high. If you compare millennials, Boomers and Gen X, millennials have by far the highest expectations for getting a graduate degree. The problem is the percentage that will get a graduate degree hasn’t really changed much since the ’70s. With this emphasis on too much praise and everyone gets a trophy, what’s been emphasized is “set the high goals,” not “you need to work for it.”

What would be an effective strategy for marketers to reach this demographic?
We’re already seeing that “you” is used much more often in marketing and advertising. It’s highly individualistic and calls out the individual person. It’s focused on “you” and “I” less than “we.”

You’d think that if millennials are consuming more media, they’d be more civically minded.
They’re not reading the news. If they’re reading the news, they’re reading the celebrity page. They’re consuming viral videos. You look at YouTube, it’s not President Obama’s speeches that go viral; it’s the cat that does something stupid. If you look at the general trend in the news media, it’s away from hard-hitting news and toward fun fluff.

What does that mean for the health of our democracy?
Not good.