Simply put, Gen-Yers have an activist bent. But their activism is different from the idealism and rebellion of their Boomer parents in the 1960s and '70s. For today's Gen-Yers, activism is not about rebelling against institutions -- there's simply not that much left to rebel against.
Belief in institutions like government and big business crumbled long ago. Rather, in a world of almost infinite lifestyle choices, Gen-Y activism is about young people knowing their own inner priorities and making a vow to live by them -- even in the face of adversity.
A big part of Gen-Y activism is what I call "self-activism." They treat themselves and their dreams almost like causes. It's less based on idealism and more a matter of necessity: If they don't activate the revolutionary inside, they simply won't get anywhere in today's hyper-challenging marketplace.
According to the Wall Street Journal, half of all new college graduates now believe that self-employment is more secure than a full-time job. According to a Gallup pool, over two-thirds of high school students say they intend to start their own companies. Clearly, an independent spirit pervades this generation, and it's fueled by a strong sense of their personal values and beliefs. Among GenYers' most important personal values are authenticity, altruism and community.
Yet, it is this generation's consumer activism that makes them a unique challenge for marketers. Gen Y-ers don't just want to buy brands, they want buy in to what a brand believes in. They flock to brands like Red and Livestrong that spark movements.
Some are social movements -- the sweatshop-free and socially responsible clothing movements are making clothing brands like Timberland, American Apparel and Patagonia must-have items for GenY. Others are cultural movements -- rather than selling processing speed, Apple invites GenYers to join a creativity movement. Obama became the choice of Gen-Y voters because he asked them to join a movement for change, not simply to vote for him.
Would your brand fight for a cause it believes in? Would your employees? Most Gen-Yers would. Today more than ever, GenYers are seeking to summon their own passion, courage and determination. Thus, if you want to connect with them, it's time to stop doing traditional marketing and start believing in something bigger than making money.
It's not easy for a brand to spark a cultural movement. But it's worth doing because it allows us to go beyond having a point of difference and actually have a difference-making purpose in the world. I, for one, believe Gen-Y's unique activist spirit will be its lasting generational hallmark, one that will change the future practice of marketing for the better.
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