Data suggest that a popular excuse for cultural nonprofits failing to innovate – namely, that the values of millennials will change to conform with existing organizational priorities as they age – is incorrect.
When confronted with data indicating the influence that millennials currently yield in shaping our world, it is not uncommon for overwhelmed leaders to respond with the patronizing defense, “We’ll see what happens when these kids grow up, get jobs, and become real adults!” There is an implication among some leaders that millennial values are fleeting, and lack the staying power to inform “proper adult” beliefs and behaviors.
Data suggest that this implication is patently false. There is little evidence that age is a driving factor for cause prioritization changes over time – at least in today’s world. Here are three, data-informed points to consider regarding the staying power of values, and what they mean for organizations.
1) Young adults access information and diverse viewpoints more immediately and globally than the leaders of today accessed information
Before debunking the “just wait until millennials get older” defense, it’s important to acknowledge that this defense – however outdated – makes some modicum of sense conceptually: When many of today’s leaders (Baby Boomers and even some members of Generation X) were coming of age, the world was a bit different. Comparatively, the primary forces informing the values for today’s leaders were their own experiences. The digital and social media age had not yet leveled their disruptive forces on the world – and the volume and immediacy of information, data, connectivity, storytelling capacity, and shared experiences was much, much less than it is today. Today, young adults are often unable to avoid exposure to alternate viewpoints, opinions, news stories, and the like.
Many organizational leaders have adapted to this digital world, but when they think back to the formation of their values, they forget that these things didn’t exist when they were coming of age. Today, the abundant, real-time access to massive volumes of information means that young adults are exposed to value-forming ideas before they naturally “come up” in life.
For example, older generations view dolphin shows much more favorably than younger generations – and many leaders seem to believe that younger generations will change their minds about dolphin shows as they have children. However, data suggest that millennials aren’t budging on this value – even after they have children of their own. Consider this possible reason for the difference: It would have been easy (and arguably completely innocent) for older generations not to consider the welfare of animals before seeing an aquatic show at a Sea World because, simply put, issues of animal welfare were less part of the everyday social conscious. Statistics, scientific analysis, expert testimony, documentaries about the issue (available in real-time within the comfort of home), and – as such – the ability to connect with friends about these topics were much harder to come by in even the recent past than they are for millennials.
Today’s world offers a broader view and access to powerful, relevant stories that can connect with folks on a personal level. Something happening to you first-hand is no longer as necessary for informing your belief system.
2) Data indicate that values and cause prioritization remain largely durable as individuals age
There are two, basic points that counter the popular defense that millennials will inevitably change their values as they age: First, millennials are not “growing up” – they’re largely grown. The oldest of this generation is around thirty-five years old and they have jobs, raise families, put roofs over their heads…basically, they have all of the trappings of adulthood. Second: It is a myth to suggest that peoples’ personal values and belief systems change significantly over time.
If you value an issue (e.g. equality, arts and culture, health care, education, conservation, etc.) as a young adult, you are likely to retain this valuation as you age – even as you add other priorities to your life (e.g. spouse, kids, mortgage, car payments, etc.)
Consider the data below. It is the result of a 10-year tracking study that quantifies the cause priorities of US adults by age cohort. The y-axis indicates the relative priority strength of the cause – a higher value means that the particular cause is a higher priority. The x-axis indicates the duration of the study so as document any shifts in priority over time.
You will observe that some causes such as marriage equality indicate a “lift” borne of evolving social norms; however, what is perhaps most interesting to note is the significant bump in prioritization indicated as older millennials age into the 35-54 years old cohort. Basically, as millennials age into “proper adulthood” – replete with mortgage payments and school carpools – the strength and priorities of their beliefs indicate tremendous durability.
One observes a similar bump on matters relating to the environment – as millennials and the youngest members of Gen X age, the strength of their beliefs remain stable – so much so that it influences the next age bracket. And because millennials are roughly twice the size of their Gen X predecessors, they carry proportionate influence – for better or for worse – on a cohort’s overall priority.
When one considers the relative priority of arts and culture, one observes a significant decline in priority due to the massive influx of millennials and young Gen Xers as they age into the 35-54 cohort. This should be particularly alarming for arts and culture organizations who are already struggling to engage millennial audiences because it suggests a generational disconnect that could threaten the efficacy and solvency of organizations who fail to engage with this incredibly influential audience.
3) It is unwise for leaders to wait for millennials to conform to their priorities instead of evolving their organizations to respond to audience needs
More to the point regarding the cause prioritization of arts and culture: While some organizations have been waiting for millennial attitudes to change, other organizations have responded to the opportunity and developed programming and experiences that are responsive to millennial mindsets.
Ours is increasingly a zero-sum game when it comes to audience engagement. Audiences only have so much bandwidth. In terms of prioritization, one cause’s gain is often another cause’s loss. It’s the most basic of engagement economics: It is far less expensive to retain audiences than it is to acquire someone else’s audience. Waiting for millennial attitudes to evolve to suit your own priorities is just plain bad business.
Can viewpoints and cause prioritization change among individuals over time? Luckily for those of us in the arts and cultural sector, the answer is yes. However, the data suggest that age is not the driving factor for changes in cause prioritization over time. These data squarely refute the notion that millennials will “grow out of their beliefs” as they age. If we want to change cause prioritization among individuals, we cannot simply wait for it, we need to actively take note of the wants of our audiences and change it.
This data suggests the risk of a generational disconnect between arts and culture organizations and millennials. The dwindling number of attendees to arts and cultural organizations relative to population growth serves as further evidence that these entities haven’t been adequately prioritizing access for new and emerging audiences. As our traditional audiences age, we’ve been carrying out business as usual, adhering to plans designed to engage previous generations. As a result, we’ve become increasingly less important to emerging audiences.
Data suggest that organizations most at risk are those data-denying entities who mitigate or otherwise excuse their failure to adapt to the generational evolution that is changing our world. Indeed, they are choosing to age into irrelevance.