Are Millennials Lilliputians?

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Are Millennials Lilliputians?

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In 1726, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was published in a safe and strictly edited form, but thankfully, this deeply satirical manuscript was published later in its original, unedited form in 1735. Gulliver, our travelling protagonist, observed strange and imagined countries, and at one point he was held prisoner by a race of tiny people he called the society of Lilliputians.

Almost daily, the media and marketing community encounters a “society” of consumers called the “millennials.” Here are a few recent headlines:

“Millennials distrustful of Canada’s food system, survey nds”

“The war on millennials: Why they really do have it harder than you did”

“Millennials in denial over costs of mounting debt”

Like Swift’s Lilliputians, millennials possess imagined and mythical characteristics that go beyond the constraints of a simple age-based target group, assuming characteristics that say more about the “targeters” than about the targeted. Are millennials really something special or are they simply an age group—a kind of ageist version of those Lilliputians?

“Millennial” is a term coined in 1987 to categorize an age cohort born between 1980 and 2000. Today these folks are16-36 years of age – a close match to the popular 18-34 media age break. Also referred to as Generation Y, Generation Me or Echo Boomers, this group has been endlessly analyzed, defined and re-defined and the result is a confusing pile of contradiction as this list attests:

There are 8.4 million millennials in Canada today— almost 30% of Canada’s 12+ population. The 18-34 demographic is roughly the same size as the 35-54 and 55+ segments, which begs the question… is this a target or a census?

One way of determining if millennials are a target full of superheroes or just an overblown age group is to compare today’s millennials to the 18-34 cohort from 20 years ago who grew up to become today’s Generation X (now 35-54 year olds). In other words, are they different than the 20-year-old versions of themselves? To do this, we pro led the current 18-34 group using Vividata and turned to an old PMB ’97 study to determine the pro le of the 18-34 demographic from yesteryear.

(A big thanks to IMS who were able to track down the old PMB’97 study and blow the dust off the software needed to read this “ancient” data.)


There are a few more of them now. There are 8% more 18-34-year-olds today compared to 20 years ago, which matches the growth rate for the overall population.


Back in 1996, 18-24-year-olds made up 37% of all 18-34-year-olds. Today, the 18-24 year age composition is comparable. A common marketer mistake is the belief that millennials are 20-year-olds. Twenty-somethings do not a millennial make.

Income growth is inflationary. In 1996, 44% of this age group earned $50,000+. Today, 44% of millennials earn $75,000+. The buying power between these two earning levels is comparable.

Home ownership is stable. Twenty years ago, 64% of those aged 18-34 owned their home and the figure today is 61%. The degree of financial hardship behind that owned home has probably intensified over the 20 years, but the desire for home ownership is unchanged.

Kids at home is the same. Twenty years ago, 47% of those aged 18-34 had kids under the age of 18 in the home and this proportion hasn’t changed. Marital status is unchanged. Today, 44% of millennials are married/living together—virtually identical to the proportion (42%) 20 years ago.


Today’s millennials have higher levels of educational attainment. Since my great-grandfather’s era, every generation has exhibited a rising level of educational attainment and today’s millennial is no exception. BA/post-grad degrees are held by 30% of today’s 18-34-year-olds, compared to only 16% who had those degrees in 1996. Yes, millennials are better educated, but no more so than the average for the 12 + population.

Community size has changed: bigger markets. Over the 20-year period, the proportion of millennials living in one-million+ markets grew from 34% to 51%. In some cases, the market grew around the millennial and in other cases the millennial gravitated to the big city. Bigger markets, yes – but it was a migration that involved the entire population of Canada.

Media consumption habits are very different. This age cohort was raised at the bosom of online. It is no surprise that today’s 18-34-year- old is a heavy user of the internet and a much lighter user of every other medium. Twenty years ago, 18-34-year-olds were average users of all legacy media.

Today’s 18-34-year-olds drink a bit less beer and liquor, but have about the same level of car ownership than their 20-year-old counterparts. They are less brand loyal and more price sensitive than 18-34-year-olds were back in 1996. But then aren’t we all.

So, the next time a targeting guru or newspaper reporter uses the term “millennial,” think “Lilliputian.” The titles exist because authors have attributed imagined characteristics to both of these societies.

Published in CMDC Media Digest 2016/17. Author: Rob Young, SVP Director of Insights & Analytics, PHD Canada

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