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On the Cover: Generation M

 by Stephanie Berger
 published on Thursday, October 12, 2006

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Jeremiah Armenta / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 
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Jeremiah Armenta / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 
/issues/arts/698227
 
/issues/arts/698227
 
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We watched the clock tick down to midnight on the eve of the new millennium. We were old enough to understand the significance of the Twin Towers falling, but we were clueless about the Berlin Wall. We're a new generation - the millennial generation - and now the rest of the country is watching us.

You are being watched.

Researchers know who you are. They've seen what sites you visit on the Internet and how frequently you visit them. They monitor your text messaging, blogging and podcasting. They're aware of your attitudes toward minorities, your feelings about politics and your constant need to multitask.

And what they don't know, they'll soon find out.

At least, that's what experts hope. Researchers both nationwide and at ASU are devoting large portions of their time to learning more about our generation - the millennial generation.

Current college students are on the cusp of a new population wave. Their parents are baby boomers, born in the '40s and '50s. Their predecessors are Generation Xers, born in the '60s and '70s. But millennials, born in the '80s and '90s, are no longer labeled "Generation Y."

This new generation is too different to be merely an extension of Gen X. It's a new brand. Millennials care more about individuality but focus more on socialization than ever before. They're multiracial and culturally aware but more skeptical of the government.

But at the same time that experts study us to discover who exactly we are, everyone from marketers to politicians is scrambling to figure out how to reach us.

And we're not making it easy.

"Everything has to be digital, everything has to be online," says John Eaton, associate marketing professor at ASU. "It's got to be something that's technologically savvy and standout. You guys can see through the poor attempts of trying to act cool when you're not cool."



'Talkin' about my generation'

The millennial generation is coming of age. Researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the 2000 book "Millenials Rising," are well known for their studies of the group's dynamics. They define millennials as anyone born between 1982 and 2002. That means the first millennials to go to college enrolled in fall 2000 - the first college class of the new millennium.

Experts focus on millennials ages 18 through 25, looking for patterns in technology use, attitudes and behaviors. With an estimated 19.5 million 15- to 19-year-olds and 19.3 million 20- to 24-year-olds in the U.S., they have quite a few subjects to study.

And if there's one factor that unites the many theories on who the millennials might be, it's technology. Millennials are the iGeneration - always wired, always plugged in and always communicating.

Tom Mohr, director of ASU's New Media Innovation Lab, studies this phenomenon. "It's an always-on generation," Mohr says. "You have your iPod, you're on your cell phone, doing your BlackBerry, text messaging. You're never stopping communicating or interacting with content."

Mary Madden, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, says that millennials are much more immersed in the world of technology than older generations. The Pew Project studies the impact of the Internet on all aspects of life, from work and home to education and politics. "The bright line between online and offline life is being increasing blurred," she says.

Mohr and a team of ASU students also want to learn how 18- to 24-year-olds use the Internet and other technologies. They're conducting surveys, student case studies and data analysis to figure out what sites interest this age group and what features they like best.

And Mohr might be analyzing you in the process. In August, AOL accidentally leaked the keyword searches of more than 658,000 users over a three-month period. The data, coded so members are identified by numbers instead of names, revealed more than 20 million keywords.

By analyzing the keywords, Mohr and his team discovered the 1,000 most common searches. They ranked the keywords on a scale of one to five, one being most likely searched for by an older member ("AARP") and five being almost certainly searched by an 18- to 24-year-old ("MySpace" or "Facebook").

Indeed, "MySpace" and "Facebook" stand at the top of the list of unranked keyword searches, along with Google, eBay, Yahoo and MapQuest. "Target" comes in at No. 43. "Sex" makes its appearance at No. 76.

Mohr's research, slated for completion in December, will provide more insight into what the wired generation wants. But Mohr already has theories on how millennials' love of technology affects society.

"You're going to assume that anything you need to know is knowable instantaneously," he says, adding that millennials trust more in their friends than in officials. "The newspaper, television station and government are going to be less authoritative than they used to be."

Despite heavy socialization, millennials pride themselves on individuality. "One of the problems with my generation [baby boomers] is that what was popular was very limited," Mohr says. "Today, everybody has unique interests in music ... and you have instant access to that kind of content. The ability for people to find their unique voice is absolutely a big part of the world that you guys are in."

Madden says that millennials also find their voices by creating original content on the Internet, like blogs, videos, music and online profiles. Unlike older generations that sometimes share this kind of content by e-mail, creating content as part of an online persona means "this generation uses content to communicate in a social way," she says.

Assistant Professor Miki Kittilson, who teaches political science, agrees that millennials are both more skeptical and more individualistic than their predecessors. "We have the information at our fingertips. The media can uncover a lot of the [political] scandals, and it used to be that this stuff wasn't on the nightly news or the Internet or some blog," Kittilson says.

Because information is so readily available, making personalized political choices is easier. People don't have to rely on political parties or trade unions to tell them how to vote. "We want to make our own decisions and have our own input, and we have a sense of efficacy that way," Kittilson says.

She adds that for this reason, voting among 18- to 25-year-olds is at an all-time low. But other methods of participation - volunteering, consumer boycotts, marches, protests - are actually rising.

"Young people see it as a way to have a more direct voice," Kittilson says. "Things have changed."



'The times they are a-changin'

But political practices aren't the only changes among the millennial generation. Research shows millennials are a more racially diverse and tolerant group. Millennials don't think twice about interracial relationships. They see racism as a problem of the past.

Brett Perozzi, executive director of the Memorial Union, has attended numerous higher educaiton conferences where presenters gave information about millennial students. He says that from what he's learned, ASU's students fit this mold. "They're the most racially diverse group to ever come to campus," he says. "They tend to take a casual stance on diversity and inclusivity issues, because it's kind of a part of everyday life for a lot of millennials."

But Matthew Whitaker, associate history professor, says this newfound multicultural awareness has drawbacks as well as benefits. "While I do believe that the millennial generation is more open-minded than their predecessors when it comes to issues of race, community and culture, they are by no means colorblind," says Whitaker, who specializes in the history of interpersonal and intercultural communication, social movements, politics and popular culture. "The millennial generation is far more positive and innovative in its approach to life, and this bodes well for race relations. To maximize its potential, however, it will have to be even more vigilant than its elders, because racism is far more insidious than it used to be."

But with all the technology, individualistic decision mak-

ing and constant socializing comes stress and the pressure to succeed. Millennials may put more pressure on themselves because they believe they're special, a common trait noted by Howe and Strauss.

But Martha Christiansen, director of Counseling and Consultation at ASU, says current students sometimes try to do too much. "Millennial students are children of parents in a society where [stress is] the norm. We have the wonderful benefits of all sorts of technology, but there's the added stress of keeping track of voice mail, e-mail, telephone."

Christiansen adds that perfectionist students often overextend themselves. "If you're too scheduled and don't have time to sleep, eat well, have some unstructured time to just hang out with people, to have a cup of coffee and go shopping and do spontaneous things, you're not getting a full [college] experience."

Mohr says the increase in multitasking can cause students to be more impatient. "I have a feeling that people would have a really hard time taking a four-hour walk in the woods without having access to a cell phone."



'Reach us'

But it's this "always on" mentality that marketers are banking on.

Fran Matera, an associate public relations professor, says millennials can be reached through a variety of nontraditional channels, such as viral marketing (word of mouth), content on cell phones and iPods and, of course, the Internet.

Viral marketing taps into millennials' socialization instincts. "Peer-to-peer marketing is valuable in reaching these consumers and winning hearts and minds," Matera says.

Marketing professor Eaton agrees that viral marketing, while still in experimental phases, can grab millennials' attention. He points to the popularity of the Burger King Web site subservientchicken.com, which spread by friends e-mailing and telling other friends about it. Visitors can type in commands, and a man dressed in a chicken suit follows them on the screen.

Eaton says that even though there's no proof that sales increased due to the campaign, viral marketing is more about raising awareness of the product than getting consumers to buy. It's also about being creative. Along those lines, Budweiser is developing Bud.TV, a Web site with original comedy, sports and other programming designed to draw 21- to 27-year-olds to the brand. Likewise, companies like Warner Music Group are looking to use sites like YouTube and MySpace to spread music videos and other related content.

Political scientist Kittilson says even politicians and political parties want a piece of the technology pie. "A lot of politicians have blogs now," she says. Hillary Clinton even has her own podcasts, just like ASU President Michael Crow.

Add to that the video iPod-ready Disney movie trailers, BlackBerry-compatible games to promote movies and MySpace Web campaigns.

Perozzi says ASU takes the millennials' preferences seriously when redesigning MU Web sites for students. He wants the sites to include more "sound bite content" - graphics, animation and video clips.

Mohr says that at the end of the semester, the New Media Innovation Lab will recommend ways that newspapers can cater their online content to the new generation.

"Here's what you should be doing in your newspaper dot-coms, here's what you need to do from a mobile point of view, and here's what the organizational and financial implications of that are," he says.

But ultimately, what companies will have to understand to succeed in targeting the new generation is what Mohr, Eaton and Kittilson all agree upon: Millennials aren't stupid. They know they're being watched, studied and scrutinized, and they'll be all the more skeptical because of it.

"Technology really constitutes a second brain," Mohr says. "It makes us able to impact the world, hopefully for good, and in a much more significant way. If we have something important to say, with a click of a button, we can get to all 200 of our friends and communicate it. That's very powerful."


Reach the reporter at Stephanie.M.Berger@asu.edu.



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