Artifacts: Millennials and Gen Z Want to ‘Carry That Weight’
By HQ Strategy Team
Written in collaboration by Mike Fox, Brandon Dawson, and Priya Mullen
In 1967, The Beatles released the single “All You Need is Love” as part of the TV program, Our World. McCartney said it was tailored for the broadcast, “…but I’ve got a feeling it was just one of John’s songs that was coming anyway.”
The song is intentionally simple. “All you need is love” as a statement is a little unimaginative, but it isn’t untrue. Love is how we enter the world, how we navigate the world, and what we value most when we leave the world. Love is an element, as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. How we make use of it is where things get complicated.
What strengthens our heart, and what breaks it, builds an alchemy of compassion and cynicism that starts to govern our values. Each generation sings a different tune, but to take a cue from Paul, there’s a feeling that a collective song is coming anyway.
In this Artifacts series, we’ve explored each living generation’s unique set of values to have a conversation about what distinguishes and connects us. And parallel to these decades of shifting values is the ageless influence of The Beatles, a band that fearlessly transformed over time and persists through it.
In the last article, we learned how Gen X’s values significantly shifted in the past 3 years. This was largely attributed to the pandemic. What once was enjoying life and freedom became honesty and protecting the family. And as our finale, we look into the generations that Gen X and Boomers raised: Millennials and Gen Z.
artwork by Yury Malkov
These truth-seekers are shaped by economic downfalls, institutional crises, and the master of all: technology. In the U.S., each generation’s story moves from the freedom of defiance to the weight of owning change. It’s a weight Millennials and Gen Z are ready to carry.
Each generation seeks to differentiate itself from those who came before. This always meets the ire of their elders. For Gen Z (ages 11-26) and Millennials (27-43), the book against them is that they aren’t financially motivated, or just “don’t want to work,” as they extend their soft, sensitive hands expecting to receive a participation trophy. These facile critiques never capture the full picture. Why is criticism amongst generations always so dismissive? I guess you can’t spell generalizations without generation.
For Millennials, the truth starts to reveal itself in their reaction to the cynicism and apathy of Gen X and technology’s illumination of historically overlooked perspectives..
A Millennial might revise those critiques with more approachable arguments. Are they financially unmotivated? Or are they assessing health and happiness’ relationship to consumerism? Do they not want to work? Or are they hesitant to follow a career blueprint that had been profoundly corrupted just as their generation, saddled with record student-loan debt, entered the workforce? Or more principally, are they seeking greater autonomy and purpose in a job market whose expectations of employees has rendered the “9 to 5” punch-in, punch-out work culture obsolete? Are they too sensitive? Or do they demand more empathy? And lastly, do they want participation trophies? Or do they want to see changes in the cultural valuation of winners and losers, particularly when the incumbent narrative isn’t very honest about the playing field? How it ignores that some trophies are won by way of effort, and some are won by way of privilege.
You don’t have to agree with these assessments. There are valid arguments to be had within them. But have them as relatable discussion amongst humans, not calcifying hot takes amongst avatars. Echo chambers have an agreeable audience, rarely a growing one. The way a generation thinks and acts is more nuanced than the judgments we make from afar and seldom subscribe to in actual interactions with people.
In our efforts to appeal to new audiences, it helps to start by giving each other credit for how complicated this all is. Life is bonkers. It’s haywire. It’s an erratic mess we try to put enough order to until the next inevitable but unexpected contradiction arrives. These contradictions don’t make us hypocrites or phonies, they make us people.
What messy experiences constructed your order? What changed you? What showed you how to love? How to live? For Millennials, you can find a lot of their answers to these questions on the medium that shaped so much of who they are. Google it.
Millennials are the final generation to experience the before and after of the digital technology boom. They were kids in an analog world of greater homogeneity, and adults in a digital world of individual expression. This spelled the beginning of personalization. If video killed the radio star, digital killed the monoculture.
Content swelled. The number of new storytellers grew, and subsequently, the number of stories being told grew. Some of these stories challenged historical narratives in good and bad ways. It didn’t help that as Millennials entered the workforce, the historical narrative was losing credibility. In this surge of information and the ability to see more of what was behind the curtain, Millennials led the shift for more transparency and authenticity.
Feeling betrayed by the model of success preached to them through adolescence, Millennials rebelled against the status quo and scrapped the prototype, bringing a deep bench of Gen Z with them. Sound familiar? Every generation rebels in their own way, grabbing control of the pen to write their own pages in the long, harrowing novel that is human history. So, what are some of the plot points they considered?
Let’s turn back time to the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The world of Discmans, hand-held cameras and T9-word rapidly gave way to iTunes, smartphones and streaming services. What was once inaccessible and required patience to obtain was now in the hands of consumers in seconds. Mass appeal became less attractive to Millennials. They now had choices down to the niche. Mega brands, chain restaurants, and “a beer” were ignored in favor of hyper-personalization, local businesses and eclectic food-and-drink fare — the craft explosion. Nuance ruled. Broad strokes were boring.
For all their cynicism discussed in our last Artifacts, Generation X had it pretty good. The economy grew steadily during their formative years. In retrospect, all those John Hughes characters were yearbook archetypes with fairly basic dilemmas. Gen X was still living in the afterglow of years of unimpeded growth. Apathy and snark are luxuries of the comfortable.
Millennials came of age to the soundtrack of post-grunge, hip hop, and the explosion of indie-fronted multi-genre music festivals. Their America was firmly post-9-11. The housing market had crashed, and with it, a good portion of the growth economy. Wall Street and Detroit had to be bailed out and the Millennial-flooded job market ran dry. All the “sure things” of the American Dream felt dubious. And so these generations were keen to tune out established narratives. Millennials’ distaste for mass-market brands endured for Gen Z, but this younger generation acknowledged the pointlessness of disaffection and is now demanding more from our institutions and biggest corporations.
This all coincides with the massive shift of focus to relationships, personal health & wellness, inclusivity, sustainability and global collectivism.
Gen Z is the TikTok generation, but don’t let the immediacy or the showmanship of that platform make you believe they’re irreverent to larger issues. They see it all, from the mundanity of dance videos or juvenile challenges, to the severity of mass shootings and inflamed bigotry. And because of this, Gen Z is already deeply invested in the environment, social justice, conscientious capitalism, mental health and community.
Members of an older generation may believe Gen Z wants to broadcast everything they do, but we should consider these two things: What would you be like if you grew up in a world that broadcasts everything it does? And maybe you grew up in a world that didn’t broadcast enough.
So here we are. The latest top-ranked values by generation lists “Status” as Millennials and Gen Z’s top value. Doesn’t this run counter to all the arguments leading up to this? Well, not when you consider how these generations have defined “Status.” Where Gen X said “Status is empty; a grab for power,” Gen Z sees it as a proxy for “influence” — “how I will make a change.” It’s a grab for power, but it ain’t empty.
Every generation believes they ascended at an inflection point. To some degree that’s true. Millennials and Gen Z would probably point to the degrees in which our planet’s temperature has risen. Gen Z knows the current inflection point requires the greatest collective shift of human behavior we’ve ever known — not in another lifetime. In theirs.
In America, there’s a feeling that 200 years of chickens have come home to roost. Some have taken this as an affront to a way of life that has led to the greatest prosperity the world has ever known. Gen Z rarely says this, but “relax.” That narrative, as previously alluded to, is driven by firebrand avatars. Communicate authentically with actual people, and we see this is really just a necessary conversation about accountability and truth.
Millennials are a little more jaded about how we got here. Gen Z is ironically worn out by all the jadedness. But both generations are eager for the status needed to lead. And they now understand you have to want it, and you have to bring everyone with you. Something I think the older generations were trying to tell us the whole time.
“You say you want a revolution, well you know, we all want to change the world.”
So, how does someone who holds values of “Traditionalism” and “Protecting the family” connect with another who values building “Status” and “Power” by nontraditional means? We suggest aligning on what is fundamentally true here.
What do the comforts of traditionalism and the power to create change have in common? They both stem from desires for safety and a sense of belonging. To be seen. The how of these feelings are different, but at least we’re now starting from a similar place of why — a purpose.
Find a fundamental truth your audiences share and make it the beacon of your messaging. And of course, be compelling about it. Articulate yourself in creative and novel ways that remain authentic to you. How will you know what’s authentic? Ask yourself this: do you feel yourself controlling your evolution or does it feel like you’re chasing hits? Both can be successful. But one is far more stressful and costly. There’s a reason why some hit songs are called “bubblegum pop.” It’s sticky and sweet, but your taste for it fades quickly. When you try new tactics that are grounded by a strategic purpose, the flavor lasts a lot longer. Purpose should be an arbiter for when you’re confronted with fleeting trends and shallow tactics. Trusting who you are will show you where to go.
This is why we believe relatable, compelling, primal truths manifest from people, their unique personality and character, and from purpose, a reason so intensely human it reminds us that humanity is the point.
Our activities as brands and organizations, as people, are vast and distinct, but a purpose is the closest any commercial entity will ever get to a real declaration of love. We all resonate with that motivation.
We don’t pretend to be overly romantic about what is ultimately a money-making venture. Sure, brands help move products and services to increase profits. But barring a complete reset on how society works, every single one of us needs to do things to make money. Millennials, and likely Gen Z too, will spend more of their living years trying to make money than any generation has before. So why not find a way in which this pursuit feels personal? Why not make it feel human? Why not try to build real relationships with the people engaging with your product?
The more organizations and consumers try to keep their relationships transactional to each other, two things happen: we give businesses more of a reason to dismiss their role as people, and we give people less of a reason to care. This is why we don’t conflate “brand” with “promotion” or what is being sold. It’s bigger than that. Brands are what people think and feel about you. They’re mutually beneficial relationships. And like all relationships, they feel more meaningful, honest, and accountable when they feel real.
Millennials and Gen Z don’t want overly polished promises; they want raw, real, honest. This isn’t new, it just needs to be amplified in a louder world. Millennials made this a “nice to have” and sought it out from new independent sources. Gen Z has turned it into a necessity and demands it from every organization, small and large (especially large).
While newer brands have the luxury of a blank slate, older, established brands are driving relevance by acknowledging imperfections, fallacies, and even past wrongdoings. Take Ford’s ad on International Women’s Day, pointing out how they’ve wrongly catered to the patriarchy and overlooked the critical innovations of women in their industry.
It’s okay to admit to mistakes or acknowledge a complicated history. It’s okay to tell consumers what’s underneath the hood. And yes, it’s okay to tell people how you make money. Frankly, if you’re not doing these things, the two generations set to have the most purchasing power will reject your brand. Tell your best true story and be who you are.
We’re only human. It’s complicated. But that’s the interesting part.
By now, we hope we’ve accomplished what our team sought to make perfectly clear in this piece: “All You Need is Love” is one of the worst Beatles songs. Millennials and Gen Z aren’t interested in the promotion of platitudes or schmaltzy sentiments. But all of us, regardless of generation, appreciate love when it feels real.
An authentic way of showing people—all you need is love.