How do you define a millennial? How do you segment millennials?
It seems like almost every article on millennials cites a slightly different range of birth years. Strauss and Howe, the gentlemen who coined pop generational theory as we know it, defined millennials as those born between 1982 and 2004.
For the purposes of this article, a millennial is anyone born between 1981 and 2000, as it’s a neat 20 years, and because I think the turn of a millennium should start a new generation.
Do a Google search of ‘millennial’ and you’ll come across articles that perpetuate all sorts of generalizations. Millennials are lazy and entitled. Millennials value making a difference above all else. The reality is you can find millions of millennials who fit these generalizations, and millions who don’t.
However, one thing that many millennial articles do touch on is that during the boom of the millennial generation, social media, and technology in general, took off in full force. But, not all millennials grew up with each form of technology and social media. The technology that we’ve grown up with has helped each segment of the millennial generation. It’s shaped our likes and dislikes, what types of media we’ve had access to, and even some of our personality traits.
Since demographics are typically the dojo of the marketer, the blogosphere is overflowing with articles on how millennials are “killing” virtually every industry.
But, how can an 18-year-old and a 35-year-old possibly share the same characteristics when they’ve never occupied any stage of life at the same time?
To accurately analyze millennials, or any generation for that matter, you have to segment the generation into subgroups of three to five years. For instance:
- Pre-Millennials: 1981 to 1983
- First Wave Millennials: 1984 to 1988
- Second Wave Millennials: 1989 to 1993
- Third Wave Millennials: 1994 to 1997
- Post-Millennials: 1998 to 2000
Pre-millennials and post-millennials are the transitional subgroups. Pre-millennials have more in common with late Gen-Xers than third wave millennials. Post-millennials have more in common with early Gen-Zers than they do with first wave.
Since one of the most-perpetuated millennial generalizations is that millennials are “digital natives,” the focus of my analysis is on 25 of the most significant technological milestones between 1995 and 2016. This range of years was chosen because it is when millennials ‘grew up,’ and it is during this time that our psychosocial makeup develops.
Age in 2017: 34-36
Pre-millennials were 12-14 when the world wide web went mainstream in 1995, and 14-16 when AIM launched in 1997. The internet as we know it didn’t really take shape until pre-millennials were in college. This subsection experienced their entire pre-pubescent childhood without the internet.
Pre-millennials were 16-18 when Napster launched in 1999. They, along with the youngest third of Gen X, were the first digital music pirates. Pre-millennials were a driving force behind Napster’s growth, as well as the normalization of music pirating.
Speaking of music, pre-millennials were 18-20 when the first iPod launched in 2001. They can remember burning CDs to listen to in their Sony Discman. They played a large role in the mass adoption of the iPod.
Pre-millennials tend to not have the social media obsession that is typically assigned to millennials, as they were 20-22 when MySpace launched and 21-23 when Facebook first launched to college students. They were also 28-30 when Snapchat was released, and tend to not have the affinity for Snapchat typically associated with millennials.
First Wave Millennials (1984-1988)
Age in 2017: 29-33
First wave millennials were 7-11 when the world wide web went mainstream. This subsection has memories of dial-up and pre-Google internet, as well as memories of a pre-internet childhood.
This subsection has inklings of digital nativity but are not the true digital natives. First wave millennials were 11-15 when Napster launched and 13-17 when the first iPod launched. Their adolescence was shaped by the ability to carry their entire music library in their pockets.
Three-fifths of first wavers were in college when Facebook launched to college students in 2004. They were the first adopters of Facebook and the start of the “Social Media-savvy” millennials. They were out of college by the time Instagram and Snapchat launched. First wavers may use these platforms now, but they were not the millennials behind their popularity explosion.
Second Wave Millennials (1989-1993)
Age in 2017: 24-28
Second wave millennials were 2-6 when the World Wide Web went mainstream. They most likely do have some vague memories of life before the internet. It is in this subsection that the transformation from digital trailblazers to digital natives is complete.
Let’s look at music streaming as an example. Second wavers were 6-10 when Napster launched and were not a part of Napster’s growth. They were, however, big users of P2P services like Kazaa and Limewire. Pirating music was normal to them.
Second wave millennials were huge users of AIM in their pre-teen years, and they were 10-14 when MySpace launched in 2003. They were avid users of MySpace before Facebook opened up to high school students in 2005. Many were heavy users of Facebook in high school, and they are the first subsection to have every person they’ve known since high school as a Facebook friend.
This subsection has a large number of Apple loyalists among its ranks. They were 14-18 when the iPhone first launched, 15-19 when the App Store launched, and 19-23 when iMessage launched. Many got their first iPhone late in high school or early in college. They were 17-21 when Instagram launched and 18-22 when Snapchat launched, and were the trailblazers of the “selfie.”
Third Wave Millennials (1994-1997)
Age in 2017: 20-23
Third wave millennials are the start of the true digital natives, as the oldest were only one year old when the World Wide Web went mainstream. They were only newborns and toddlers during all of the major digital milestones of the 90’s and do not have memories of a pre-internet childhood. They also don’t have memories of pre-MP3 world. They were 4-7 when the first iPod launched, and many most likely never have burned a CD or used a cassette.
When it comes to social media, third wavers were 6-9 when MySpace launched and 9-12 when Facebook launched to everyone 13 and up. Third wavers had Facebook accounts all throughout middle school and high school.
Third wave millennials were 10-13 when the iPhone launched and 11-14 when the App Store launched. Most third wavers probably got a Smartphone as their first cellphone in high school. They were 13-16 when Instagram launched and 14-17 when Snapchat launched, so they played a huge role in the growth of these two platforms. They were 15-18 when iMessage was released and played a huge role in the popularity of group messaging apps like WhatsApp.
Age in 2017: 17-19
Post-millennials were unborn when the World Wide Web went mainstream and for most of the digital milestones of the ‘90s. To post-millennials, the internet was never “new” technology. They have always known the internet as a normal part of life, and they grew up in an era where buying and selling things on the internet became normalized. They were also never exposed to the pains of dial up internet, as WiFi went mainstream when they were 3-5.
Post-millennials were 1-3 when the iPod launched and grew up in a world where MP3 players were the norm. CDs to them are a foreign technology. Mobile music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify became the new normal for the music industry as post-millennials were in their teens.
When it comes to social media, post-millennials were 6-8 when Facebook launched to Everyone over 13, 5-7 when YouTube launched, 10-12 when Instagram launched, and 11-13 when Snapchat launched. Post-millennials had social media since they were preteens and have experienced their teen years in the age of social video. In this sense, they relate more to the oldest members of Gen Z than the oldest millennials.
If you were waiting for me to tell you how each of these millennial subgroups thinks and feels, then I’m sorry to disappoint you.
I think assigning psychosocial characteristics to a group based purely on demographic information such as birth year is utterly useless. Instead, what I hope to have accomplished with this article is a crack in the cognitive armor of those who have gotten all of their information regarding millennials from those on Madison Avenue. This chart gives you a method for taking a deeper look at the events that actually shaped the psychosocial development of millennials. With that being said, this is not meant to be anything but a conversation starter.
Am I missing any events that you felt had a huge impact on you growing up? I’m always down for a chat on Twitter (@BPucino).