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No more boomers: Businesses sizing up millennial generation

Millennials have been called a lot of names. They have been labeled the boomerang generation for the many unable or unwilling to leave their parents’ home, or even more negatively, the Peter Pan generation because they supposedly won’t grow up.

But now marketers, manufacturers and retailers are recognizing the potential of the millennial generation as something important to their bottom line: the consumers who will drive the economy in the decades ahead.

Since the 1960s, the baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, has dominated corporate strategies behind selling nearly everything. But now young adults in their 20s are moving to surpass baby boomers as the largest age group, changing the way everything is sold, even breakfast drinks and mattresses.

“Our whole consumer model is based on the baby boom,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial. Now, the coming generation is “setting up a whole new consumer model.”

Perhaps the biggest change is that today’s young adults — in part because they came of age in a harsher economic climate, in part because they have many more choices — are putting off major life decisions as well as the big purchases that typically go with them. As a result, their consumer behavior is unpredictable.

“They’ve learned to live life in a different way,” Swonk said.

The millennial generation generally is defined as being born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. By 2020, it will account for one-third of the adult population — and, because of the sheer size of the group, have the ability to reshape the economy.

In an article called “Meet the Millennials: Getting to Know Your Next Big Customer,” the trade publication BedTimes Magazine offered tips for marketing to young adults. The article advised mattress companies to sponsor a music concert or create online quizzes about mattresses.

“Tricky to sell to,” the article said, “they must be approached on their own terms.”