Millennials and economic development

By now I have a pretty good senses of my strengths and weaknesses – particularly when it comes to data analysis and interpretation.   I can give you broad demographic stats on where the Millennials are living, their income, education levels, employment – and if I dig into sources – I can probably tell you about their spending habits, etc.

However, don’t ask me what motivates them or how they think.    That is something that eludes me – beyond my very limited observations.  What makes people tick individually – and collectively as a cohort – that is hard to know with any rigor.

This essayist in the NY Times makes what I consider to be a great stab and trying to define the Millennials.

“The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman. Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials’ characteristic social form. Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.

Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms.

Call it Generation Sell.”


I like talking with folks like Tim Coates who have a good sense of the Millennials but I would still say I am a long way from understanding them and, in my case, trying to figure out how to mobilize them to get energized about economic development and about investing their time and talents into this area.

The Generation Sell concept is interesting – even if in the opinion of the author it is born out of “distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.”

As we get more ‘social’ with technology, are the Millennials really motivated by ‘every man for himself’?

In a way, this would be beneficial because too much reliance on the state or on one large employer is a risky proposition these days and will get riskier as the social safety net starts to crumble under the weight of an aging population.

However, every man for himself is not a great concept if you want people to stay and fight for their communities and to have a deeper sense of commitment to the places they were born and raised and to the future of those places.

It’s good for me to get outside the data once in a while and see what is really influencing the trends that show up in the data.  It’s far too easy – and intellectually lazy – for people to equate correlation with causality.    We see a data point and then say ‘Ahhh Ha!’.    But reality is a bit more nuanced.