David Blecken
Mar 13, 2018

Positive acceptance: a reinterpretation of Japanese 'millennials'

A new study splits young people into two distinct groups in an effort to show that 18- to 25-year-olds see the world quite differently to stereotypical millennials.

Tokyo's Harajuku district, 2017 (Niphon Subsri / Shutterstock.com)
Tokyo's Harajuku district, 2017 (Niphon Subsri / Shutterstock.com)

The marketing industry has always tried to find ways to place large groups of people under a single umbrella. In theory, this makes them definable, understandable and sellable-to. In practice, it often results in labels that mean very little and generate unhelpful assumptions.

The term 'millennial', which technically applies to anyone born after 1980, has come to encapsulate everything that’s supposedly wrong with young people. Based on tropes emanating from the US, millennials everywhere are often cast as selfish, attention-deficient, work-shy, apathetic and generally troublesome.

While these descriptors may sometimes be valid, they can never be representative of an entire demographic—especially not in Japan, where global trends often take their own unique path. With this in mind, BBDO has attempted to present a more realistic picture of young Japanese people with a focus on those aged 18 to 25, which CEO Tony Harris thinks are particularly poorly represented under the sweeping ‘millennial’ tag. “If we don’t try to understand them, there is a great chance we will alienate them,” he said.

“They are not negative. They accept the facts and work with them. We stereotype them as unmotivated and disinterested, but they are quite smart and know how to navigate to get what they want without fighting with others.”
—Tony Harris, BBDO

The agency canvassed 300 people in a qualitative and quantitative survey, splitting them between “neo mille”—18 to 25-year-olds—and older millennials aged 26 to 36. The agency's report emphasises the difference between the two, describing the younger group as more positive and active. At the same time, it suggests they have an almost Zen-like acceptance of the hand life has dealt them. Kaori Yatsu, BBDO Japan’s head of planning, attributes this in part to the influence of the 3.11 disaster, which she thinks has created a heightened awareness that life is precarious.

Flexible realists

This attitude influences behaviour in a number of ways. More than anything, it means a desire to live in the present moment while accepting that things could change at any time. In this way, Japanese 18 to 25-year-olds can be seen as more flexible than any generation before them.

Because they accept that things are in flux, they are much less likely to plan for the future. They also have little need for things that are not already within reach. And they avoid conflict even more than usual in an already non-confrontational society: if something isn’t to their liking, they move around it.

“They are not negative,” Harris said. “They accept the facts and work with them. We stereotype them as unmotivated and disinterested, but they are quite smart and know how to navigate to get what they want without fighting with others.”

Misato Kagami, a young millennial unrelated to BBDO who works in the PR industry in Tokyo, was unsure whether 3.11 had shaped her generation’s thinking, but agreed that “we are very flexible indeed” and naturally good at problem solving. “We are exposed to so much information, so we can pick and choose whatever information helps us reach a goal,” she said, adding that while core values don’t change, people are also accepting of new perspectives and values that can help them.

Diverse interests give life meaning

Another misconception is around how young millennials view work. While not against it, they are realistic in that it is not a reliable source of personal fulfillment. Just 26% aim to find their ‘dream job’, and joining a big, prestigious company is much less important than it is for older millennials.

“Working in corporations is not central to our lives,” Kagami said. “We live to do what we love or to resolve something, and being in a corporation is not a solution. After gaining experience, we leave, which I guess results in the ‘not aiming high’ perception.”

The majority of the younger group (53%) seeks a balance between work and personal time. The younger they are, the more this becomes a priority.

This could be because they do more. Younger millennials maintain an average of 3.6 hobbies, while their older peers have 2.9. They also use an average of 36 applications a month, compared to 27 among the older group. Three quarters say they have “many interests including small things”. The study suggests this group gives equal weight to personal interests as traditionally central things like career and relationships: 62% would like to have a relationship but are unwilling to make time for it because it would detract from time spent on their hobbies.

Kagami agreed strongly that work-life balance is a priority. “Work is only a tool to use to reach our own goals in life,” she said. “Staying in one community is not something our generation does… Having many interests results in meeting new people, gaining a lot of insights and experience, which builds up your knowledge. We like to be smart.”

Tokyo, celebrities lose relevance

International travel is less of a draw than for previous generations, with 55% saying they have no interest in going abroad. This suggests insularity, but is more likely to be linked to an aversion to planning. Yatsu said it could also be due to the growing realisation that there is more to Japan than Tokyo. The ability to build networks based on personal interests through technology means there is “less aspiration for big cities”, Yatsu said, noting there is a “growing sense of a nationwide community”.

Kagami agreed that Tokyo is “definitely not the centre of everything” and noted a renewed interest in Japanese culture, which she speculated could be linked to the onset of Tokyo 2020.

“We are interested in people that have gone through a similar life or thinking process.”
Misato Kagami

Of the younger group, 78% are disinclined to save money, meaning big-ticket items like houses, cars or even holidays are low on the agenda. While young people have rarely ever been enthusiastic savers, Harris suggested this could be an unconscious effort to resist “inevitable life changes that they don’t necessarily want”—i.e. responsibilities that make them less flexible.

From a consumption perspective, 50% describe their shopping habits as impulsive, while 67% say they buy things for immediate gratification. Social media exerts a relatively big influence with 37% saying they bought something after seeing it on a social channel. Yatsu likened this to “living in a shop”, and consuming with less restraint, even if the individual purchases are smaller.

This is relatively good news for marketers, but they also need to be aware that celebrities will carry increasingly less weight as a means of getting a message across, while the power of no-name individual influencers increases. 46% follow non-celebrities they admire on social media, compared to 30% of older millennials. Kagami said celebrities are difficult to relate to. “We are interested in people that have gone through a similar life or thinking process,” she said.

In the end, appealing to young millennials should not be any harder or easier than to earlier generations. Yatsu said marketers need to be aware that the consumer journey has become much shorter. She pointed to recent work by YOOX as an example that acknowledges this. She also advised thinking in terms of experiences, and not focusing everything on Tokyo. Lastly, relating to this group means understanding the role a brand can play in their lives; it doesn’t mean simply presenting a likeness of them in a piece of advertising, as major brands still do all too often.

“Saying ‘hey kids, this is what you look like, so like our brand’ has never been the way to talk to young people and if you do, you just come across as dad dancing,” offered Harris.

Campaign Japan

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