Diary of a Millennial: Consumerism

It’s true that every generation brings economic change and shifting consumer demands. And while I’ve only been alive to witness it once (aka, now), it certainly seems as though the hullabaloo regarding this particular generation’s buying power is causing ripples that are somehow more significant than in the past.

It’s partially due to the fact that we all love to talk (read: complain) about Millennials, but it’s also because we’re in the middle of an economic shift unlike anything we’ve seen before. As the Baby Boomers – the largest and wealthiest generation in U.S. history – shift their wealth to their Gen X and Millennial kids/grandkids over the next several decades, they will effectively be transferring about $30 trillion in assets. Apparently, this will be the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world. I only took one economics class and I really hated it, but this seems significant.

The shifting markets and corporate structures at the demands of Millennials also comes as the country recovers from one of the worst financial crises in its history. At at time when the nation’s economy was deeply impacted by the recent recession, the Millennial generation was just beginning to impose it’s unique buying power. In fact, the rise of fast-casual dining (more on that later) was a particularly strange phenomenon because its popularity began to spike when other restaurants were still suffering hard from the housing market crash and subsequent recession. Perhaps the first of many clues that Millennials would be heard – loudly.

So, what we know is that the economy is in a unique place to allow huge shifts in consumer demands and that the Millennial generation is more than capable of causing change with or without the economy to support it. The result is a lot of change in the way support companies and spend our dollars.

Social Responsibility

It started out small, few and far between. Starbucks, for example, pioneered a path to its current empire on the promise of responsibly produced coffee. Now the brands and companies without a political tie or some kind of global charity have become mediocre in the Millennial-driven market. Ben & Jerry’s was built on a foundation of charitable giving and liberal political commentary/comedy. Blake Mycoskie convinced most of America to wear some of the ugliest shoes on earth (sorry, TOMS lovers) in exchange for the promise that our purchase would be reciprocated with a shoe donation for kids halfway around the world. Products without purpose are so last generation.

Millennials are paying attention to corporate structure, too. We want to see that companies are fostering a fair environment for employees, promoting sustainable practices, distributing wealth back into communities – the list goes on and on. Simply Google “socially responsible companies” and an assortment of rankings will appear at your fingertips. Speaking of Google, they usually top these lists, along with the likes of other tech giants like Apple and Microsoft. Several auto manufacturers, like Tesla, are also favorites. And, inevitably, the media empire known as the Walt Disney Company is frequently mentioned. At the bottom lie our big banks, oil moguls, and infamously controversial agricultural corporations.

Unconventional Commercials

At the core of it, Millennials want the companies they support to practice business ethically, and it’s no surprise that this is also extending to advertising.

Consider the typical millennial-and-younger response to “traditional” marketing techniques, such as the television commercial, the billboard and the radio ad. Younger folks almost recoil physically when their binging is interrupted by the ninth Geico commercial this hour. Sure, it’s a pretty first-world thing to complain about, but are they wrong? Advertising takes up almost every beat of silence and unoccupied surface in this country — aren’t millennials onto something by demanding a more civil approach? – Sarah Landrum, Forbes

Goodbye to the unnecessarily explicit Hardee’s commercials, hello to ads that seem barely related to the product or company (in a different way than the Hardee’s ones). Millennials are the first generation to wonder why marketing is completely self-interested and simultaneously create the opportunity for advertising at a social benefit. It’s the new expectation for companies to dedicate portions of their reach and power on societal improvement. Think of the recently famous Heineken ad and countless others like it – the promotion of the product is present, but the social message is overpowering. Advertising is an infamously massive, multi-billion-dollar industry that has been known for its relentless disregard for…well, ethics. The indication that the demands of Millennials are changing that is yet another testament to our consumer power.

Chipotle Effect

Similarly, probably one of the most tangible examples of the Millennial market and culture shift is the way the generation has rocked the restaurant industry. You’ve probably heard people talk about the decline of casual dining. Think: Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Chili’s, Buffalo Wild Wings. They’re dead in the water and it’s because of Millennials.

“Increasingly, customers – especially younger customers – are craving convenience, coming in the form of trendy and inexpensive fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Shake Shack,” Kate Taylor explains in Business Insider.

Why? Because restaurants like Panera and Chipotle are perceived as healthy, trendy, convenient, and personalized. They use avocados in everything. They “locally source” ingredients and don’t try to hide the food prep process. It’s something we barely had a name for in the 90s and it’s grown by 550% in the last 18 years. Really, it makes sense. Lower grocery prices are driving people to eat at home more often and, when they do want to go out and spend the extra money on a meal, they’re opting into local restaurants and unique experiences. The very idea of the outdated chains (that are now meeting their deaths) contradicts the quality that Millennials crave.


At some point long ago (I’m not going to pretend to know when), the consumer began to over-value convenience and a low price point at the expense of quality. This is the Made in China era, the days of barely-beef frozen patties from drive-thru windows and the automotive section less than 50 yards from the “fresh” produce in your local Super Walmart. This is when companies started spending as little as possible to produce as much as possible. This is when corporate giants got shadier than ever and no one seemed to care. Then Millennials came along and wanted something better. Better – or at least the perception of it – is what we’re getting. Are we annoying and entitled? Sure. But is the market bending to meet our preferences? You bet.

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