US Insights

Centennials and Millennials use technology differently

Rob Callender

Associate Head of Polycultural & Inclusivity Insights

Brands 07.06.2015 / 10:25

People in a selfie

Don't assume that Millennials are the be-all, end-all of technological prowess

While generations are shaped by a variety of factors, no cultural force has gained prominence-and grown its power to shape young people's interaction with the world-faster than technology. Much-discussed Millennials were the first digital generation, but Centennials, the less understood cohort that follows Millennials, are the first mobile generation. We're already seeing attitudinal differences between the two generations in terms of technology. Assuming that Millennials are the be-all and end-all of technological prowess is short-sighted, to say the least.

Let's take a look at some of the technological differences that helped inform the Millennial and Centennial cohorts.

Freedom to explore vs. need for secrecy and protections. Millennials came of age when the internet and digital media were all about possibility, freedom and empowerment. They were ahead of their parents and marketers in terms of their sophistication and facility with new technologies, and they had relative freedom to explore all that the early Internet had to offer.

Centennials have the advantages of being mobile natives. But, they also have to deal with a very different technological environment, one that requires much higher levels of caution and care. They live in a world in which parents feel it's their responsibility to monitor their children's online activity, and brands feel that it's their right. Exploration still takes place, but Centennials have needed to develop workarounds and alter their sharing practices to circumvent both types of monitoring. This requires far more thought and energy than Millennials ever needed to use in this space.

Rise of e-retailers vs. rise of c-retailers. Millennials saw the rise of e-retailers and the boom of e-commerce. They were the first generation to fully embrace the idea that goods and services can be purchased from somewhere other than an established brick-and-mortar store. As a result, they also spearheaded the transfer of consumer expectations spawned by e-commerce to traditional retail and vice versa.

E-commerce is of course still alive and well, although early prognostications that it would lead to the demise of traditional retail have turned out to be vastly overstated. What we see shaping the marketplace expectations of Centennials is C-commerce or the Consumer to Consumer economy. Centennials have an even larger selection of outlets for their needs-beyond B2C, they're growing up with an established C2C economy. It's perfectly acceptable, and sometimes preferred, to purchase something handmade rather than mass-produced.

Currency vs. social currency. The Internet is the great equalizer. Access is relatively cheap and ubiquitous these days, and once you are on it, everyone's experience and opportunities are basically the same regardless of income or education. Millennials used their access for self-expression, creative outlet and as a lifestyle facilitator. But all of these activities were still in the context of an environment in which success was more about financial resources and the American Dream was built on economic outcomes.

Centennials are coming of age in which a financially fueled American Dream is beyond what most people can afford. Today, the American Dream is being digitally re-mastered and optimism, a sense of progress and hopes for a better life are driven by technology and not economics.  

Hand in hand with the ascendance of technology as the premier macro-driver of consequence in society today is the growing importance of social currency over actual currency. Centennials are more apt to equate influence and celebrity with number of followers than number of dollars.

So what does all of this mean? Well, when we look at all of the formative events together, specific cohort characteristics begin to crystalize.

Exuberant, with wild ambition vs. astute, with tempered expectations. Coming of age in an opportunity rich environment offers many luxuries, including the ability to explore and follow one's interests, and putting off thinking about the future while enjoying just being young. Millennials enjoyed a youth of positive attention, self-esteem building, tremendous possibility and idealistic ambitions for themselves as individuals and as a generation.

In contrast, Centennials are growing up with a less idealistic and more pragmatic edge. They're being exposed to situations that Millennials didn't have to deal with until later in life, and are as a result, growing up more savvy, in graver times when everybody doesn't win, choices are limited and success is harder to come by.

Intrapersonal intelligence vs. practical intelligence. Millennials are good at being aware of their own emotional states, feelings and motivations. They tend to enjoy self-reflection and analysis, including day-dreaming, exploring relationships with others and assessing their personal strengths. In many ways, Millennials' self-esteem and positive psychology-oriented upbringing emphasized and supported this type of intelligence.

Centennials, on the other hand, are seeing a world in which there is a premium on practical intelligence. This is the ability that individuals use to find the best fit between themselves and the demands of the environment. And, it will enable the Centennials to figure out how to succeed in an opportunity-impoverished and less forgiving landscape.

This is not to say that each generation is wholly lacking in the other sort of intelligence. The labels indicate the type of intelligence that their upbringing fostered, valued and therefore emphasized. In many ways, cultural intelligence, to which we referred to earlier, is a type of practical intelligence, one that will be required to navigate and negotiate the transition of our society from one that is merely multicultural to one that is becoming ever more polycultural.

Working the system vs. working around the system. Finally, Millennials became very adept at "working the system". In particular, they're skilled at using social media to aggregate demand, apply pressure to brands and institutions to get their way, and rally like-minded individuals to a cause. Even while working within the system, they found new ways to gain advantage. Millennials in many ways were the poster children of the youth arm of the consumer empowerment revolution.

But working the system requires that the system works and that you can have faith in it. One of the defining aspects of the world in which Centennials are being raised is that basic societal institutions, or "the systems," aren't working. They're either broken, compromised or in need of significant upheaval. This is leading to a generation that is becoming known for its skill at working around the system. Rather than pressuring the system to do the right thing or to listen to them, Centennials are bypassing it entirely and creating their own solutions, products, fixes and life paths. Ultimately, the products of their workarounds may be a major aspect of their enduring legacy and impact in society.

Of course, cohort characteristics evolve over time as the generation deals with new challenges that arise. You'll recall that the early traits ascribed to the Xers and Millennials shifted as they aged into later lifestages. Still, the formative events that they experienced had a great impact on how these generations look today. So, while we can't promise Centennials will always look exactly like this list, we can say that the traits developed during their formative years will influence them as they progress through life.


Source: Kantar Futures

Editor's Notes

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