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OPINION: How Different Are Millennials, Really?

[RETHINK Retail] — A version of this article first appeared in a Retail Systems Research newsletter. You can sign up for free here. 

Over the past five to ten years we have been literally bombarded with warnings and “insights” into the minds of millennials. So much conversation about how they value “experiences over things” and how we’d have to adjust everything in our retail worlds to accommodate this new, huge generation.

Through it all, I kept asking myself — really? Are we so sure they’re so different? I long ago concluded, “Not really: it’s all a function of the average age in a named generation.”

Now, this question is an entertaining intellectual exercise, backstopped by articles like this, which highlights 2500 years of people complaining about the younger generation (Bill Maher, take note!). But it matters to retailers, and that’s what I want to discuss today. I want to take on the notion that millennials care about experiences over things and therefore, boring retail is dead, and fast fashion is a quick and easy way for millennials to buy cool stuff that they can basically throw away. Not so fast, kids.

By now, we have all heard about two things:

  • 1. Fast fashion is struggling. Forever 21 has declared Chapter 11, H&M got itself into a big    inventory problem that the company is still struggling to eliminate, and the drumbeat around the environmental impact of “throw-away” clothes is getting louder.
  • 2. Secondhand clothing and consignment shops are having a serious heyday.


A friend showed me this article in a New Zealand newspaper that emphatically stated that sales of secondhand clothing will overtake fast fashion within a decade! Consider the following quote from the beginning of the article:

We all like cheap clothes, but they can come at a huge price, not only to our environment but also the people who make them.

Textiles make up four percent of the waste in New Zealand landfills, according to the Ministry for the Environment. That’s more than glass which makes up 2.5 percent and nappies and sanitary products which make up 2.7 percent.

Not only are they clogging up landfills, but according to the United Nations, the textile industry contributes around 10 percent of global C02 emissions – that’s more than aviation and shipping combined.

When it comes to wastewater pollution, clothing production contributes a whopping 20 percent worldwide.

Globally, people bought on average 60 percent more clothing in 2014 than they did in 2000, but they kept it for half as long, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

This love for new clothes means one garbage truck of clothing is burned or sent to landfill every second.


As you can see, not much of this is specific to New Zealand. And, one thing is for sure, the young tend to be more idealistic than their older “I just can’t think about it anymore” counterparts.

Frankly, it’s not just millennials that have these concerns either. Plastic straws have already been banned in most of Miami, and in full disclosure, I have purchased two very expensive second-hand handbags over the past decade. Why? I like the quality and am willing to pay what I’d pay for a mid-line new bag for a gently used one.

To take it a step further, we’re already seeing companies start to recognize that tiny houses aren’t going to work for families — Rocket Mortgage (for example) directly targets millennials. And based on the home improvement market, those same millennials are renovating those houses they’re buying.

When it comes to millennials in the workforce (another topic that has given me a headache over the years!), we are finding that once they have something to lose, millennials are far better behaved in the workforce. They’re really not as entitled as we thought.

So, what’s my point here? Let’s stop assuming that millennials are some new species that we must adapt to, and oh-my-God, Generation Z is coming right behind them and they’re going to be even more different. What now?


If we’re going to generalize, let’s assume the following:

  • Most of the population is more environmentally conscious than it was even a decade ago. Jane Fonda (81) is planning to get arrested every Friday on the steps of the US Capitol Building in the name of ecological concerns
  • Cheap stuff is not always good stuff. Quality counts
  • Boring retail has ALWAYS been dead. Who wants to be bored? Do you? No. But CONVENIENT retail can trump boring retail. Walmart may not be exciting, but it manages to pull in $400+ billion every year. Guess what. It’s not all old people!
  • Store based retail is still not dead. All the “retail apocalypse” stories in the world aren’t going to change that fact. The store is transforming and changing, but not because of Millennials. It’s changing because consumers now have technology in their hands. Now and forever more.


So, the bottom line here is that we tend to kinda sorta discriminate based on age. We kinda sorta assume that people have dramatically changed, and we’d better change what we do to support them. In fact, the fast fashion industry vs. the consignment industry are canaries in the coal mine.

There are certainly differences across economic statuses, and for sure, boomers are not always as with personal computing technologies as their peers (with some obvious exceptions). But age really does drive a lot of behaviors.

That’s actually one reason we’re going to run so many 360 degree benchmarks in 2020. We want to dispel myths. But more important than just dispelling myths is revealing the disconnects between retailers and their customers. I find this all very exciting, and I am as eager to find out where I’m wrong as I am where I’m right.

This will be cool.