Millennials’ Age of Anxiety

For generations, teen life has revolved around popularity or lack thereof, prowess in the classroom and/or on the sports field, and the latest fashions. Today, however, typical teenage ego-centrism co-exists alongside economic concerns such as whether good jobs will be available post-college or whether Mom and Dad are doing OK money-wise.

This is among the findings of JWT’s latest AnxietyIndex quantitative study, which explored the recession and its impact on the millennial generation, specifically teens and twentysomethings. For the random online survey, we polled 1,065 Americans aged 18-plus and 96 teenagers (aged 13-19) residing in the homes of the adult participants.

We found that millennial teens are anxious. They’re hearing about the economic crisis from their parents, at school and on TV, and facing the reality of it in their lives — whether that means forgoing a new game system, gymnastics lessons or the traditional family getaway.

The down economy is forcing teens to grow up — at least a little bit. They’re developing a new sensibility when it comes to money and brands, and making new value assessments. Impulse (“I see, I want, I get”) is giving way to value consciousness — and in some categories, teens have a very clear perception of which brands provide better value.

This shift is part of a movement away from conspicuous consumption, as glorified over the years by shows like My Sweet Sixteen and Gossip Girl. What’s becoming cool is conscious and creative consumerism — cheap is chic, bargain-hunting begets bragging rights, and doing more with less carries at least as much badge value as the latest It bag or logo-laden attire.

Twentysomething millennials are adopting these attitudes, too. Many say if money becomes tight, they’d be willing to trade down when it comes to alcohol consumption, gym membership, cable/satellite subscription and dining out — or abandon these altogether.

When budgets are tight — or when people fear they will get tight — even some commodity brands can become a luxury. So brands will need to make a solid argument for why good enough is not enough. As in past recessions, brands must communicate a value proposition loud and clear to justify their cost and to shift the conversation from “Is this the cheapest I can find?” to “What do I really get for my money with this product or service?”

 
There are two exceptions to the idea that teens and twentysomethings are willing to downgrade or give up the amenities: their Internet connections and their mobile phones. They already see these things as extensions of themselves, and the downturn is only increasing that bond. And no wonder — these media offer a wide array of content and applications at low to no cost, easily replacing paid products and services. More importantly they offer connectivity.

For today’s teens, connectivity is entertainment. What’s ditchable are traditional forms of entertainment such as football games and hitting the mall. Socializing and entertainment these days is just as likely (if not more) to take place in the digital or mobile worlds.

For twentysomethings, this type of flat-world, two-degrees-of-separation hyperconnectivity opens the door to opportunities that were less easy to come by in the unwired world of recessions past. While there’s a pervasive sense of resentment among twentysomethings, who feel they’ve been dealt an unfair blow because of the economy, they’re finding advantage in adversity. A good portion, for instance, see this as a good market for first-time homebuyers and entrepreneurs. Technology has lowered the barrier to entry, encouraging ingenuity and optimism. 

Brands can tap into the aspirations and optimism of these young adults, whose eyes are open to opportunities that may present themselves during this rough patch. A good way to build confidence is through hope — giving young consumers a chance to be proactive and plan practically for their future.

Ann M. Mack is the director of trendspotting at JWT. She can be reached at ann.mack@jwt.com or follow her at @annmmack. She posts regularly to JWT’s AnxietyIndex blog.