Contributed by Bruce Levinson, VP, Client Engagement of SGK

Follow your dreams don’t give up

Remember anything is possible, believe is all you gotta do.

— the rapper T.I.

Bruce Levinson

In the U.S. alone, there are more than 80 million people born after 1980 – the largest generation ever. And even though they don’t have as much money to spend as older generations, they’ll be consumers for a very long time. For the future of almost any brand, understanding the millennial generation is a priority.

Attempts at understanding millennials, however, have been confoundingly disparate. In Generation Me, Dr. Jean M. Twenge warned against an unearned sense of self-regard: “We simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.” Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber, in their book Generation We, took the opposite view, characterizing millennials as a “powerful political and social force,…smart, well educated, open-minded,…ready to put the greater good ahead of individual rewards.”

Recently, the debate reached new heights of prominence (and absurdity) with Time magazine’s May 20, 2013 cover story. In “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Joel Stein described today’s young adults as “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow” before concluding in the end that they may be “the new greatest generation of optimistic entrepreneurs.” It was one of Time’s most widely commented – and mocked – articles ever.

Changing the definition of adulthood

Rather than debating generational traits, more clarity may come from asking developmental questions. Recent research has shown that the brain’s frontal lobes – involved in judgment, planning, impulse control and emotional expression – continue to develop well into the mid-20s. Research psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Arnett has proposed a previously unrecognized developmental stage, which he calls “emerging adulthood,” inhabited by young people who have “not yet entered the enduring responsibilities that are normative in adulthood.”

Arnett has studied hundreds of people in their late teens through their twenties and found that they define full adulthood primarily as “accepting responsibility,” “making independent decisions” and “becoming financially independent.” In other words, becoming self-sufficient.

A time of anxiety – a time of exploration

The road to self-sufficiency is longer now. The unemployment rate for U.S. millennials is nearly double that of older workers. But while they may have every reason to be anxious – having come of age among the extraordinary shocks of 9/11, a globalized “war on terror” and the great recession – today’s emerging adults are surprisingly resilient and optimistic. Whether it’s because they’ve been raised to believe they can accomplish anything, or whether it’s because they’ve been toughened by growing up in harsh times, many are energized by new possibilities and are taking their time to explore.

Back in 2004, Arnett proposed five traits defining “the age” of emerging adulthood. Today, it’s instructive for brand marketers to note how the global recession and its lingering hangover have brought these traits into even sharper focus:

(1.) The age of instability.

Roadblocks and detours have become the norm. By age 30, the typical worker has changed jobs seven times, and expects to stay less than three years in any particular job. Every year, one out of three moves to a new residence. At some point, two out of five move back to live with their parents. People in their 20s also change partners more often and marry, on average, five years later than their parents did. As many as two-thirds live together prior to or instead of marriage.

(2.) The age of identity exploration.

While their home, career and relationship instability may horrify parents and job counselors, emerging adults are taking new opportunities to explore fulfilling paths in life. The shaky economy has eliminated much of the stigma of job-hopping, creating opportunities to find more interesting work, faster advancement and a more enjoyable office culture. Similarly, by extending the search for a life partner, emerging adults often achieve greater commitment, emotional maturity and financial stability when they decide to tie the knot.

(3.) The self-focused age.

Emerging adults may have less economic security, but they’re responding by reining in material expectations and using their relative freedom to explore their values and connect with like-minded peers. Instead of aspiring to home and car ownership, for example, they’re increasingly sharing living spaces in walkable and transit-served urban centers and college towns.

(4.) The age of feeling in-between.

When Dr. Arnett asked study subjects whether they feel they have reached adulthood, they were likely to answer “in some respects yes, in some respects no.” This in-between feeling is exacerbated today by mounting student debts and uncertain career paths. However, it also means people in their twenties are more open to a variety of experiences than at any other time in their lives.

(5.) The age of possibilities.

Even in the face of past disappointments and future anxieties, emerging adulthood is an age when many pathways remain open. With the market of opportunities afforded by social media, new choices in local commerce and simple living, a growing do-it-yourself ethic, and the optimism of youth, today’s emerging adults are exploring their possibilities with unprecedented freedom.

Believe is all you gotta do

Marketers used to get away with treating Gen X’ers as younger versions of their parents, but millennials are fundamentally different. They don’t hate their parents, and they have a much more global and multicultural view. They feel more empowered, in spite of the enormous challenges they face. They’ve seen things that used to be unimaginable – gay marriage, a black president, CEOs without college degrees, the crowd-funding of businesses.

For millennials, anything is possible. Brands need to nurture that confidence – and follow millennials’ dreams.

Bruce Levinson is Vice President, Client Engagement at SGK, a leading global brand development, activation and deployment company that drives brand performance. His previous positions include director-level marketing roles at Unilever in the US and UK, and as an advertising account executive.


Arnett, Jeffrey. “Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development from the Late Teens Through the Twenties. American Psychologist 55, no. 5 (May 2000): 469-480.

Arnett, Jeffrey. Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Briggs, Craig. Interview with author. May 29, 2013.

Greenberg, Eric, and Weber, Karl. Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America And Changing Our World Forever. Emeryville, CA: Pachatusan, 2008.

Levinson, Bruce. Interview with author. May 10, 2013.

Sloane, Kathryn. Interview with author. June 1, 2013.

Stein, Joel. “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.” Time 181, no. 19 (May 20, 2013).

Twenge, Jean M. “The Evidence for Generation Me and Against Generation We.” Emerging Adulthood 1, no. 1 (March 2013): 11-16.

Twenge, Jean M. Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable than Ever Before. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Twenge, Jean M., and Campbell, W. Keith. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Harris, Clifford Joseph Jr. (T.I.), “Follow Your Dreams.” No Mercy, Deluxe Edition (iTunes bonus track). 2010.

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