Millennials: Who wants ’em? (Maybe you do.)

Blame whoever named Boomers “Boomers.” Ever since, the mass media seem to have indulged some sort of compulsion to give succeeding generations names. Unfortunately, no one troubled to come up with anything cool or even appealing. In a dazzling display of no creativity at all, photographer Robert Capa came up with “Generation X” for a photo essay of people born from about 1960 to 1980. Author Douglas Coupland picked up the sad excuse for a moniker when he named his 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. From there, amazingly, the X stuck.

I suppose it followed logically, though with equal lack of creativity, that someone would dub the succeeding group “Generation Y.” Gen Y-ers were defined as pretty much anyone born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. As one born nearer the earlier end of that time frame, I am pleased that eventually a better name came along. I’d rather be a Millennial than a Y.

Uninspired, chromosome-recalling names aside, Gen X and later Gen Y had demarcation problems from the start. No one can quite say where either begins or ends. Moreover, there is something naive in treating in the same group someone born in, say, 1987 and someone else born in, say, 2003. The latter may recall PCs with floppy drives. The former most likely cannot recall a time without iPhones. The latter may have launched her or his career. The former will start fifth grade this month.

Fuzziness and wideness of the category aside, Millennials pose a bit of a dilemma for financial institutions. As an older Millennial myself (you’ve no idea how little I care for applying that word “older” to myself—I like it less than “Y”), I am well out of graduate school and 15 years into my career. But many later-born Millennials are still in college. Many will emerge saddled with debt which may put the kibosh on their spending for a while after graduation. It can make investing in keeping technological pace to please them something of a bitter pill, knowing that payoff will not come until a decade or more later.

Yet putting off development until the entirety of Millennials attain a degree of spending power is nothing short of foolhardy. For one thing, a lot of Millennials are spending right now. Millennials spent an estimated $1.3 trillion in the U.S last year. Not bad for a not even half-emerged demographic. For another, if Moore’s Law continues to hold—as it has since 1966—you can count on the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubling every two years. Translation: technological speed and capability will continue growing geometrically. Fall a day behind and there will be no catching up.

We Millennials make for a great market in the world of interactive banking. Ours is the first generation to embrace technology fearlessly and whole hog. We are early adopters and adept networkers. We are not offended when you push us to devices instead of bodies behind counters. In fact, we prefer it. We spread ideas and recommend products faster than any prior generation. Make us happy and we will help you grow, often through sheer networking alone. In prior years, word-of-mouth was the most credible but also the slowest form of advertising. Today’s interactive devices and media provide Millennials with virtual word-of-mouth advertising that can make—or kill—a product or service overnight. As you grow your digital offerings, Millennials promise to be your biggest fans and most ardent salespeople.

Yet you likely will see little of us face-to-face. If you intend to pursue banking as a relationship business, not just a hard-to-move-accounts-away-from business, you’re going to have to master making us feel valued, recognized, and connected over an array of devices of various sizes and features. The popularity of the likes of texting and tweeting means that, increasingly, you will need to learn to communicate brand values without the use of logos, jingles, fonts or other brand trappings. (Sad news for banks that mistake their logo and slogan for a brand. But that’s another post.)

You’re going to have to keep up with Millennials’ lust for newest and fastest. I admit we’re a little spoiled. In fact, financial institutions, it is you who have spoiled us. Letting us use your toys at no or low cost while you scurry to keep up-to-date is something you’ve trained us to expect. As both a Millennial and a financial services professional, I’d advise against wasting time wondering how we let that happen, instead focusing on where we take it from here.

Millennials represent a great opportunity for financial institutions. Look at the spending punch older Millennials pack now, and consider what younger ones will pack over the next 10 to 20 years. Marketers who wooed Boomers while they finished school and launched careers ended up richly rewarded. There is a good chance that those who woo Millennials will be rewarded in their turn.

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