Whither Millennial Men?

Recently I caught a TV ad that made me ask myself some serious questions about the future of marketing to men. The commercial shows a middle-aged man who decides to use a hair product (Just for Men) prior to a job interview with a 20something woman. The payoff: After using the product, he gets the job and the young female hiring manager is so impressed she tells him, “I’ve got big plans for you.”
Wow — not the ending I expected. Sure, it’s common knowledge that the power and prestige of the male gender is in decline, and that men increasingly feel marginalized in a feminized workforce. But are men now officially the second sex? If so, how will we as marketers find a way to relate to them? What does the future of marketing to men hold?
A look at even the basic statistics on millennial men (males who are approximately 15-30) shows some patterns to be concerned about. According to a Washington Post analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, one-third of young men ages 22-34 still live at home with their parents, which is nearly a 100 percent increase versus 20 years ago. We haven’t seen this type of change among young women. According to the book Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax, young men today are less likely than their sisters to graduate from college, and much less likely than their sisters to care about earning good grades at any point from kindergarten through university. The National Center for Education Statistics tells us that for every 100 women who earn bachelors degrees, just 73 young men do.
One major cause of this situation: millennial men are coming of age in an environment of adversity they’re not prepared to cope with. They have little if any trust in institutions like government or organized religion. For them, peers are the new authorities. And the formal rites of passage that once guided them to manhood have mostly disappeared. They’re in essence navigating a DIY adulthood with no map and some are getting lost along the way. Whereas their boomer parents at a similar age had a formula for success in life (graduate from school, get a job, get married, buy a home, retire), millennials are making it up on the fly. And while young women feel a modicum of support from a “you go girl” culture, there’s no corollary for young men.
Some believe portrayals of men in culture are not terribly aspirational. As Stephen Seth, a semiotician (and frequent StrawberryFrog collaborator) with London-based Space Doctors put it, “We’ve chosen the name ‘big kid’ to characterize the way men are represented in U.S. media today.” According to Seth, for some years American men have been portrayed in a dim light that is, as he puts it, “slightly infantilized.” He feels U.S. marketers often speak to the same big kid, focusing primarily on entertainment and escape.
The good news is that some millennial men are taking matters into their own hands and inventing a new version of American male success. In recent research we’ve seen the emergence of a new male success archetype I call the “indie guy.” He’s neither the rebel archetype of his boomer dad’s generation nor the compliant organization man of his grandfather’s day; he’s more of a maverick and pioneer.

If anything the indie guy archetype seems to harken back to the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories of the 1900s. He is the young man who starts with very little and makes it through courage, determination and ingenuity. His ideal: being a self-made man. The guys we encounter who embody this ethic today seem to be quite diverse ethnically, are not necessarily from wealth and often have entrepreneurial dreams.
This new archetype is emerging and by no means as prevalent as the more familiar “player” or even the “metrosexual.” But we begin to get a glimpse of it in HBO’s How to Make It In America, a show about three 20something guys, one black, one Latino and one Caucasian, struggling to start a jeans company in New York. Similarly, Johnny Walker’s brilliant  “The Man Who Walked Around the World” tells the story of a young entrepreneurial man (Johnny Walker) with a different view of success. I, for one, hope we’ll see more of this guy in movies, TV and brand communications going forward.
After graduating from college, my bright 20something nephew ended up living at home and working as a waiter. I wondered why he didn’t get a traditional job and enter a profession. But that wasn’t what he wanted to do. He struggled for awhile, but has now started an unconventional business and seems to be making it his own way. His view of success is simply different from the one I was used to.

Maybe the future of marketing to these young men is about giving them hope that a new version of American male success is possible, in a world where the odds sometimes seem stacked against them.
Chip Walker is head of strategy at StrawberryFrog. He can be reached at chip@strawberryfrog.com.

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