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Marketers need to understand that not all millennials are created equal

The idea of “millennials” as a monolith was always tenuous. It’s getting even more so as those on the demographic’s leading edge flirt with middle age

Parents having a dinner party with a baby

This is what you get searching for “millennials” on stock photo sites now. Mortgages, babies, statement appliances. (Thomas Barwick/Getty)

Canadian Millennials are richer than their parents were at the same age. I love saying that at dinner parties because of the incredulous rage it elicits. Parents of millennials usually respond with a quavering “yeah, but…,” followed by truthy assertions about real estate prices or McJobs. Millennials them selves act as if I’ve accused them of being crooked hedge fund managers. But that’s what the data says. As far back as 2014, using unimpeachable StatsCan numbers, a BMO Economics report concluded that despite having more debt (mostly in the form of mortgages), millennials already earned more money, had more buying power and enjoyed a higher net worth than their parents did by the same point in their lives. And saying so drives people crazy.

That’s the fun of a broad brush. But for marketers, the days of breezy millennial generalizations may be ending. The oldest of this fabled cohort are now approaching their mid-30s and are very much settling in to adult life. “Millennial moms” have suddenly become the most obsessed-about consumer tribe in marketing because of their buying power and seemingly overnight conversion to adulthood. “Imagine a switch being flipped,” quoth one expert. “As soon as millennial women have a baby, they begin to align themselves with a mom group as opposed to a millennial group.” Well, maybe. Or maybe they never conformed to the marketing stereotype in the first place.

Spend any real time with someone born in the early ’80s, and a different picture of who the leading-edge millennial is starts to emerge. Far from the digital natives who hijacked this generation’s identity, these people remember a time before the Internet. They made it through school without social media being part of their lives. The culture that shaped their world view was more ironic detachment than burning idealism, more Futurama than the Hunger Games. When they were 20—and I realize my brush is only slightly less broad here—they expected less of the world. And some of them even managed to get careers started before the great reset of 2008. Their lives could hardly be more different from the millennial stereotype.

Thinking about consumers as generational cohorts can be a useful shorthand. But for marketers, its value has much more to do with shared experience than with birth year. A large tribe of people whose lives have run on mostly parallel cultural tracks will share some common language and preferences, and that helps make marketing more scalable and efficient. But parallel tracks are essential to making that work. And occasionally, a great disturbance upends the tidy 20-year rhythm that defines generational cohorts. For millennials, that epoch began in 1993 with the birth of the commercial web. In every sense that matters to marketers, that means they are not one cohort. They are two.

It’s likely the pre-digital millennials who are dragging those average wealth (and debt) numbers up. Perhaps more important to marketers, though, is that they are matriculating into the life stage where consumers have the biggest impact on economies. Kids may dictate fashion, but 30-somethings buy homes. And the furniture and appliances to go in them. And the cars. And the groceries for growing families. Not only do they spend more, but the brand preferences they form tend to stick. This consumer has always mattered, and today’s version is no different. Their distinction, ironically, is not in contrast to previous generations, but to the one they’ve spent their lives lumped in with.

As fun as broad brushes are, there is a time in marketing for nuance—and if your business thinks in terms of households rather than individuals, this is it. Millennial moms and their families are happy to affect the clothes, gadgets and selfies of their generation at large, but the worst mistake you could make is to dismiss them as merely older specimens of marketing’s favourite hothouse flowers. They are at least different, and at best vanguards of the kind of consumer all millennials may eventually become. It’s worth getting to know and understand them. Especially because they’re so rich. Or at least, that’s what I heard.