Anything Is Possible: Understanding A Generation Of Emerging Adults

Follow your dreams don't give up
Remember anything is possible, believe is all you gotta do.
— the rapper T.I.

In the U.S. alone, there are more than 80 million people who were born after 1980 -- the largest generation ever. And although they don’t have as much money to spend as older generations, they will 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 confounding. 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,, well educated, open-minded,...ready to put the greater good ahead of individual rewards.”



Changing the definition of adulthood

Rather than debating generational traits, we can ask 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.”

In other words, 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 shocks of 9/11 and the great recession -- today’s emerging adults are surprisingly resilient and optimistic. Whether it’s because they have been raised to believe they can accomplish anything, or because they’ve been toughened by harsh times, many are energized by possibilities and are taking their time to explore.

Back in 2004, Arnett proposed five traits defining emerging adulthood. Today, brand marketers should 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 home.

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 paths in life. For example, the economy has eliminated much of the stigma of job-hopping, creating opportunities to find more interesting work, faster advancement and better office culture.

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 buying homes and cars, for example, they are increasingly sharing living spaces in walkable and transit-served urban centers and college towns.

4. The age of feeling in-between. When 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 that young people are more open to a variety of experiences.

5. The age of possibilities. 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 treat Gen Xers 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 have seen things that used to be unimaginable become realities: gay marriage, a black president, CEOs without college degrees, crowd-funded businesses. So they feel more empowered, despite the enormous challenges they face.

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

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