It’s the best time in the world to be a millennial man, to hear baby boomers tell it—let your parents or your girlfriend pay the rent, maybe start a useless tech company, watch marketers trip over themselves trying to reach you. But talk to guys in this highly desirable demo yourself and you might discover a disenfranchised group with little disposable income, a love of niche culture and an upbeat outlook that belies the economic hand they’ve been dealt (two-seven offsuit). They’re not opposed to advertising, but they also love being obscure—it’s the first generation that would starve trying to order a pizza (or deciding where to order a pizza from). Not your dream clientele? Well, get used to them—they’re the biggest generation in history, and if you can’t reach them, somebody else will.
First, a few statistics on U.S. millennials, or Gen Y, or Those Damned Kids, depending on who you ask: Collectively, they carry $1 trillion in student loans. Only 62 percent of them have jobs, and only half of those work full-time. Median net worth among people under 35 has decreased by more than a third since 2005. Barely one-quarter of the men have bachelors’ degrees, despite all that college debt (many didn’t finish). More than one-third live at home with their parents—double the number from the previous generation.
Jonathan, a bartender, is 28. He lives in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina—not with his parents but with several roommates—and works at a wine shop since being laid off from his bartending gig, which he loved, earlier this year.
“I do not have cable,” says Jonathan. “Never have, actually. We have Netflix, we have Hulu, and we have an Apple TV that combines those.” What does he use them for? “I like long-format television shows—Mad Men, House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire.” But how does he get Boardwalk Empire without cable? (Do you have to ask?) “Uhh, it’s pirated,” he says, embarrassed. “I’m so stupid about technology now, so unless it’s recording equipment I don’t know how to use it. I just get my roommate to download it for me.” The rest, he emphasizes, is “mostly rented. I’m pretty fiercely loyal to my local video shop as well. I rent The Newsroom from them, rent the other HBO shows and stuff.”
Jonathan and many like him do not generally mind being marketed to, contrary to popular belief. It’s not a question of principle—it just sometimes seems unnecessary. “I use Netflix basically for TV shows and stuff like that, so I don’t have to look at commercials and it’s not edited,” says Steve, an itinerant DJ who’s been on what he calls “an eight-month freedom journey across the country.” Neither he nor Jonathan has health insurance. One of the men interviewed here uses food stamps. Another works for a company in a big city that pays him half the industry average for his job.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. One guy has an Ivy League education, another works for an entertainment conglomerate, a few have studied under top professionals in their fields. They’ve just had a hard time finding good jobs. The reality is, these anti-millennials are coming of age during a historic moment when the gap between productivity and real hourly compensation has never been wider, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Put plainly, those who can find jobs are doing more work—a lot more work—for far less money.
All pride themselves on being outliers, on having really nerdy, wonky interests that they know everything about—but which don’t really have that much in common with the gen pop. “I platinumed Warhawk,” says Steve proudly, “which is the No. 1 hardest game on the Sony [PS3] to platinum.” (It’s hard, incidentally, to “platinum” any game—that is, to get every last one of the cleverly named virtual trophies for performing a stunt.)
There’s a perception among advertisers that millennials are “digital to the core,” as one exec puts it. That’s not actually the whole story—they’re also thrifty to the core. They have to be. Steve, 31, has a hard time paying the bills and only watches cable when he’s at a friend’s house. He does love the movies, though. “I like anything with a main character that has to go through some sort of awakening process,” he says. How many films does he see in the theater? “I’d say at least 10 a month.” Like everyone else interviewed, he loves his DVD collection.
“Cord-cutters” and “cord-nevers” may be the bane of the cable industry, but interviewees said that problem simply boils down to math. For a household of four people, says MediaVest evp, research director David Shiffman, a full telecom package is much too expensive. “You have cable, plus phone, plus two mobile devices—maybe a tablet. That’s probably $450 a month,” Shiffman estimates. Indeed, the average cost of a cable bill is nearly double what it was in 1996. “They don’t have that money when they’re making $30,000 a year and have all this student debt.”
“Cable is just far, far too expensive, especially for the quality of programming,” concurs Max, who just turned 29 and is getting his MBA at night. “We’d be paying a ton of money a month. I looked it up once. It was, like, unfathomable.”
Price indexes, too, have skyrocketed. So the question becomes not simply “How do we reach young men who don’t have cable?” but also “How important to marketers are consumers without much discretionary income?”
For example, these guys don’t want a new car. At all. “They go, ‘I’ll have to spend $500 a month?’” says Shiffman. (Last year, the average monthly car payment was $550.) “It’s something that a lot of marketers are trying to wrap their heads around.” He clearly has a point. “A $500-a-month car payment?” gasps Max. “That’s terrible. I’d pay, like, $285, and that’s high.” He pauses. “I don’t like seeing luxury cars advertised,” he says, thoughtfully. “I don’t know if that’s because I’m poor.”