Millennials, Elections, and Change

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Really?

For the first time since the end of World War 2, almost longer than living memory, there is a generation growing up knowing that it may be poorer than the last. The arc of ‘progress’ which previous generations took for granted seems to have evaporated for many in the developed world as both an idea and a living reality. 

Whilst that can seem bleak, it’s important to remember that change is also an opportunity.

The 2017 General Election in the UK (in the wake of Brexit in 2016) points out how these demographic and behavioural trends are important to grasp. It is now generally understood that Labour won the social media battle for young people’s hearts and minds despite losing the vote, and that this was because of its combination of messaging which focused on values over attack, and was highly targeted at motivating younger voters as well as their core vote.

The Tories’ failure to grasp this meant they talked to their own self-enforcing circles. The Tories’ view was that the young don’t vote, ignore them.

The lesson from Brexit had clearly not been learned.   As Robert Peston put it

Victorious Leave was a coalition of those who feared they had lost control of their country and those who feared they had lost control of their livelihoods.”

Robert Peston: ‘I don’t appear to be living in the same Britain as much of the rest of the country’

millennialsGeneration Y – the 18 – 35 age group – Millennials. These are terms to describe people born between 1980 and 2000. They’re the group under the microscope here. Why? Because here in the Western developed world, Generation X (1965 – 1979) and especially the Baby Boomer generation (1946 – 1964) expect pensions, free healthcare, state or large scale, high quality provision of free at the point of use social services … a raft of expectations which, when denied, lead to repercussions for society.

On current trends, there are more of that older generation than there are of Generation Y, or the cohort to come (2000 – 2020) put together.


Originally from The Guardian – Generation Y: A much maligned generation

So what? As marketing and communications people we need to look at society and social trends. As arts practitioners, likewise. As social scientists even more so. And I’m all three.

I’m a GenX baby but have plenty in common with both GenY and the Baby Boomers. Why?My values matter to me. I turned down the offer to be Wonga’s Head of Marketing, there was no way I was going to be part of contributing to the sum of human misery.

In 2010 I left a very well paid career and comfortably cushioned life (a la  Baby Boomers) to branch out. With the mortgage paid, I finally had time to explore new areas such as self employment and a portfolio career in art, theatre, and events, some paid and some voluntary and using existing skills but also learning through doing all the things I had always been told I couldn’t … because I knew that if I didn’t I’d be miserable and stifled by fear of change.


Source: Deloitte

I changed my life, I became GenY overnight but with some of the privilege of a Baby Boomer; no mortgage to pay and assets I could call my own.

The recent EU Referendum debate and 2017 General Election illustrate the differences between GenY and Baby Boomers.   One group is hugely diverse, liberal in outlook, more prepared to talk about the ‘state we’re in’ and explore creative responses to the problems, is internationally minded (there are opportunities to the East after all).   On the other hand, there is another group fearing change and whichever symbol represents it: Young people; foreigners; immigration; women; ‘rights’ or ‘identity’; gays; ‘talking about feelings and all that soppy stuff …’

“Pull your socks up!”

“Get yourself together!”

Look at the facts.

Who are GenY – Millennials? What are their challenges?

Understanding Millennials is the key to understanding the mess we’re in and how we might, maybe, get out of it.


Source: Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research (2016)
Flexible capitalism has blocked the straight roadway of career,diverting employees suddenly from one kind of work into another (Richard Sennett,1998:9)
Source: Introducing Gen Y:A different generation or a different species? Tom Baum, Department of HRM, University of Strathclyde

But it’s not all doom and gloom, it’s an opportunity!

  • Housing – Ok, GenY may not be able to afford to buy a house.   But arguably that’s an argument for developers and planners to think about new types of tenure and property styles.   Perhaps Baby Boomers need to think about divesting some of their property wealth and passing it on.
  • Jobs – For GenY, employment of the full-time, and well-paid kind may be a chimera, but there are other options and new ways of working within existing organisational structures especially with tech and in the creative thought sectors which encourage entrepreneurialism.   But also, the world of conventional work needs a kick up the backside, it could learn a lot from theatre, the sense of play, collaboration and creativity.
  • Life – Marriage or having children may be pushed by GenY to a point later in life, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.   In terms of politics, GenY may be the generation least likely to vote, and if it does, most likely to vote with/for liberal causes, but perhaps that too is an argument for changing the way our politics is organised and conducted?   After all, this is the generation that has been through a massive technological experiment as well as a huge economic recession … and the rest.

What does it mean for the arts?

Experimentation, change, collaboration, excitement … fun.   That may take a little investment.   It may also take new ways of connecting people.   It may mean setting themes for people to respond to/work with or against.    It’s all to play for.   After all:
[aside from] … just appreciating what other artists have created: Millennial respondents were more than five times as likely as their [Baby] boomer counterparts “to take a class related to the arts after attending an event”
Source – The Art of Attraction: How to Grow Your Millennial Audience

It has to change the way you reach people:

Compared to older generations, millennials are more likely to find out about arts online
Millennials want experiences not things
Source – Washington Post

Nonprofit arts organisations are not unlike newspapers (and I’ve worked with News publishers in the past!); they also sought to reinvent themselves for the digital age as their print subscription bases declined.   As with arts organisations, the media executives  I worked with were starting to embrace the habits of millennials, creating individual stories (or individual shows) curated from many diverse publications shared on social media.

Yet, like arts organisation, newspapers remained reliant on the revenue that came from loyal older, Baby Boomer, bases.   Those subscribers were (and remain) exceptionally loyal to them, and often them alone.   Great.   But the payoff is a kind of stasis, a conservatism frozen in aspic, a reluctance to embrace change, or when it is embraced, to do so through gritted teeth and only once it had been bowdlerised and filtered so as to resemble … well, conservatism and something frozen in aspic.

For both organisations it was – and is – difficult (even impossible) to reinvent yourself while maintaining a structure that allows you to hold on to that existing well of loyalty.

As an example, take the case of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.   They recently added a production to its subscription season for 2015 and shortened the length of the runs.   By having more shows, the team at Steppenwolf acknowledges that the theatre, and its powerful brand name, tends to attract dedicated heavy users who want more to consume.   More programming clearly offers the opportunity for more diverse programming, allowing you to hit more demographic groups and artistic tastes, and providing more of a cushion in the event of failure (the next show will come more quickly).


Steppenwolf also promoted their new space – bar, cum gallery, cum rehearsal studio, cum performance space – one of those “third spaces” (neither home nor work) that millennials allegedly embrace, as they commit cautiously to how they plan to spend their night, or maybe just part of their night.

But before Steppenwolf announced its new season, it sent out a cautious note to the subsection of its subscribers who might be losing their prized seats to the shortened runs.   We did the same at the Telegraph  as we ramped up their digital presence.   In both cases, it doesn’t make sense not to offend the traditional subscriber/punter … but also to make sure that change happened.

Adapt or die

The lesson is that the opportunity lies in reinvention for the future, and definitely not in growing the way you generate your present revenue.

Here in the UK – in the arts – we do things similarly, but also with a view to understanding audiences and their place within the wider demographic changes taking place.

At Talawa Theatre Company, where I work most days, our renewed focus on developing new young playwrights voices and stories with them has borne some amazing fruit. This isn’t just about social media, it’s also about the way we do this, the values and ethos we uphold and celebrate. That authenticity comes across to younger people, builds trust and enables new work. You can’t do that if you live in an echo chamber of self-enforcing and self-referring voices.