With so much talk about Millennials as both the primary audience and creators of the digital era you’d expect publishers to have pinned down the consumption habits of that incredible valuable demographic. But individual studies around those habits publish wildly disparate results. So, is ‘Millennials’ useless as a term? And is it possible to come to common consensus on what a Millennial is at all?

It’s both an absolute definition and a meaningless one. Like gen X before it the simplest definition is ‘people born within a particular range of years’ – although exactly which year starts the gen Y/Millennial-era is under debate, common consensus puts it at somewhere around 1982 (although TMB has seen both 1977 and 1985 suggested as start dates). That’s a simple enough definition, albeit one that includes upwards of a quarter of the global population.

And that’s the problem with the term. It’s simply too unwieldy, encompassing as it does European city workers in their early thirties, American college students and tweens in Asia, across all political, gender and religious spectrums. You’d be hard-pressed to get a random selection of ‘Millennials’ to agree on what flavour of popcorn to get at the cinema, let alone which film to see or even whether to go to the cinema in the first place.

Limited snapshots

Each study of Millennial habits is bound to show different results, then – they’re, at best, limited snapshots of an extremely small proportion of those who fall under the gen Y definition.

Just today, for example, saw the publication of two studies on Millennial news discovery and consumption habits, whose results are incompatible where they’re not simply hugely disparate. One study, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research, found that:

“More than half of millennials older than 30 describe themselves as mostly proactive consumers of news; only a third of millennials under 25 say the same. There was broad support for the idea that keeping up with the news had value — 85 percent of millennials surveyed said it was at least somewhat important to them.”

But the studies differ in where they say Millennials are consuming and discovering news. The API/AP study says 47 percent of the respondees claim consuming news is a major reason they visit Facebook, and that they sought news out on the following platforms ‘on occasion’:

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By contrast, a study by Adyoulike with comparable numbers of respondees (1,046 for API/AP versus 1,000 in the Adyoulike study) found that only 9 percent of Millennials preferred to get their news from social media as a whole, instead relying mainly on traditional platforms like newspaper websites and the BBC (85 percent, with the remainder made up of those who choose original digital sources like BuzzFeed and Vice).

That’s just a single example of two contrary studies of ‘the Millennial’ as a demographic. Neither is necessarily incorrect, it’s just that a single 1,000 sample selection cannot accurately model the entirely of a generation. Nobody quite knows what a Millennial looks like, then – not even Millennials themselves – because the Millennial simply doesn’t exist as anything more specific than ‘born between the years x and y‘.

What we know

So while it’s difficult to extrapolate Millennial consumption habits from individual studies, it’s absolutely possible to talk about the technological changes that have enabled those changing habits. We know, for instance, that the increasing consumption of digital video is a prime example of an undeniable trend among Millennials.

We also know that, while Millennials aren’t wholly against paying for media as a whole, they are significantly less likely to pay for news since there are so many free sources available online. But all that tells us about Millennials is that they exist in the 21st Century, where tech advances and the internet have had a drastically destablising effect on how media content is discovered and consumed. 

So perhaps, rather than chasing Millennials – which is so broad a term as to be meaningless – on the basis of studies that only take into account a fraction of that demographic, publishers should be taking a step back and talking about the context that allowed the term ‘Millennial’ to take root to begin with. It’s a small distinction, but one that should alleviate some of the confusion that surrounds the term and, hopefully, demystify the generation to publishers who are increasingly reliant upon them.

Image used courtesy of zimpenfish via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.