Targeting Gen Y? Look Before You Leap

By Ruth N. Bolton

Ruth BoltonGen Y, or the Millennials, are frequently described as narcissistic compared with previous generations; they “want it all” and “want it now.”  Yet, we are also told that they have higher levels of civic engagement – just look at the Arab Spring! Can both be true? Is it even possible to compare Gen Y to previous generations? How do we separate fact from speculation? Finally, is this debate useful to managers in the service sector?

Marketing mavens tell us that members of Gen Y are savvy “digital natives” who grew up using digital and interactive services. Some prognosticators argue that Gen Y’s social media use and consequent behavior foreshadows the future behavior of all consumers. These claims seem all too plausible when we see toddlers fearlessly swiping at their parents’ iPhones in airport lounges!

However, earlier generations adapted to innovative services over time, such as the telephone and television. Are the effects of social media that different? Indeed, many studies find Gen Y uses social media for the same purposes as other generations: For information, for leisure or entertainment, for socializing, and experiencing a sense of community. Hence, it may be too early to say whether Gen Y will have stable differences in values, preferences and behaviors compared with earlier generations.

Recently, I was part of a team of researchers that took a hard look at research on Gen Y – trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. The results are summarized in the article “Understanding Generation Y and their Use of Social Media,” published in the Journal of Service Management (Volume 24, 3).

First, we were surprised at how little evidence was out there. One big problem is that many studies are cross-sectional and do not distinguish between the effects of age versus generational (birth) cohort. This raises the obvious question: How can we know what will happen as members of Gen Y grow older, marry, and have children? A few studies have used longitudinal methods that identify generationally enduring traits, typically by comparing college students of different generations.

You’ve probably heard of Professor Jean Tweng, who has been featured in the New York Times, Good Morning America, and other media outlets. She wrote “Generation Me” in 2006 and ”The Narcissism Epidemic” in 2010. Of course, critics of these books have emerged. Interestingly, there is more to the story than narcissism. Research suggests that there is a growing devaluation of work and a weaker work ethic when comparing Generations X and Y to earlier generations. This is scary news for organizations that frequently rely on young service workers!

What did our research team conclude? As you might expect, Gen Y (1981+) will be characterized by shared experiences that give it a common perspective, just as the Silent Generation (1925-45) was marked by the Great Depression and the Baby Boomers (1946-61) were shaped by the post-WWII economic recovery. However, there isn’t widespread agreement on which critical events will shape Gen Y values and behavior. Equally important, individual members of Gen Y may have different preferences, values, and behaviors depending on their economic, technological, cultural, and political/legal environment as well as on their socio-economic status and other personal characteristics. This caveat is especially important for global service organizations.

Gen Y will face beneficial and “dark side” outcomes from social media exposure.  Social media can strengthen people’s supportive social relationships and extend their physical well-being. Organizations can deliver innovative and customized services to customers, as well as their employees. At the same time, a heavy reliance on technology for communication, entertainment, and emotion regulation can distort interpersonal relationships. Who hasn’t heard a story of cyber-bullying, internet addiction, or loss of privacy?

Bottom line: Be wary of sweeping generalizations! Our study came up with more questions than answers. It may be many years before we fully understand the consequences of Gen Y’s social media use for individuals, service organizations, and society. Stay alert to potential effects of social media, but stay focused: Know your customers. Know your employees.

“The simplification of anything is always sensational.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton

Ruth N. Bolton is Professor of Marketing at the W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. She previously served as 2009-11 Executive Director of the Marketing Science Institute. She studies how organizations can improve business performance over time by creating, maintaining and enhancing relationships with customers. Her recent research has focused on high technology, interactive services sold in global business-to-business markets. She has extensive experience with survey research design, as well as the econometric analysis of large-scale, integrative data bases. Her research is typically conducted in partnership with businesses, such as the Marriott Corporation, Hewlett-Packard and Schneider National Inc.

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