Are millennials Lilliputians?

PHD Canada's Rob Young debunks myths around the imagined community of Lilliputians (aka millennials).

By Rob Young

In 1726 Swift’s Gulliver Travels was published in a safe and strictly edited form. Thankfully, this deeply satirical manuscript was published in its original, unedited form not too much later in 1735.

Gulliver, our travelling protagonist, observed strange and imagined countries and at one point was held prisoner by a race of tiny people he called the society of Lilliputians.

Something similar seems to be happening today, where, almost daily, the media marketing community encounters a “society” of consumers called the “Millennials.” Here are a few recent headlines.

Millennials distrustful of Canada’s food system, survey finds.

The war on millennials: Why they really do have it harder than you did.

John Doyle: Important statement about millennials.

Millennials in denial over costs of mounting debt.

My Millennial Life documentary directed by Maureen Judge.

Like Swift’s Lilliputians, millennials possess imagined and mythical characteristics that go beyond the constraints of a simple age-based target group, assuming characteristics that say more about our “targeters” than about the targeted.

Are millennials really something special or are they simply an age group; a kind of ageist version of those Lilliputians?

The millennial is a term invented in 1987 to categorize an age cohort born between 1980 and 2000. Today these folks are 16-to-36 years of age – a close match to the popular 18-to-34 media age break. Also referred to as Generation Y, Generation Me and Echo Boomers, this group has been endlessly analyzed, defined and redefined and the result is a confusing pile of contradictions as this list attests.

millennial contradictions rob young

There are 8.4 million millennials in Canada today; almost 30% of Canada’s 12+ population. The 18-to-34 year old group is roughly the same size as the 35-to-54 year old and 55+ age segments, which begs the question… is this a target or a census?

One way of determining if millennials are a target full of superheroes or just an overblown age group is to compare today’s millennials to the 18-to-34 age break from 20 years ago who eventually grew up to become today’s Generation Y (now 35-to-54 year olds).

In other words, are they different than the 20-year-old versions of themselves?

To do this we profiled the current 18-to-34 year old using Vividata and turned to a 1997 PMB study (courtesy IMS) to determine the profile of the 18-to-34 age group from yesteryear.


The “ancient” data reveals that not much has changed.

A few more of them now.

There are 8% more 18-to-34 year olds today compared to 20 years ago, which matches the growth rate for the overall population.

The age profile hasn’t changed much.

Back in 1996, 18-to-24 year olds made up 37% of all 18-34 year olds. Today the 18-to-24 year age composition is comparable. A common marketer mistake is the belief that millennials are 20 year olds but twenty somethings do not a millennial make.

Income growth is inflationary.

Back in 1996, 44% of this age group earned $50,000+. Today, 44% of millennials earn $75,000+. The buying power between these two earning levels is comparable (taking into account inflation rates and purchasing power parity).

Home ownership is stable.

Twenty years ago, 64% of our 18-to-34 year old age group owned their home and the figure today is 61%. The degree of financial hardship behind that owned home has probably intensified over the 20 years but the desire for home ownership is unchanged.

Kids at home is the same.

Twenty years ago 47% of 18-to-34 year olds had kids under the age of 18 in the home and this proportion hasn’t changed.

Marital status is unchanged

Today, 44% of millennials are married/living together; virtually identical to the proportion (42%) twenty years ago.

But some things have changed.

Today’s millennials have higher levels of educational attainment.

Since my great grandfather’s era, every generation has exhibited a rising level of educational attainment and today’s millennial is no exception. BA/Post grad degrees are held by 30% of today’s 18-to-34 year olds; only 16% had those degrees in 1996. Better educated, yes – but no more so than the average for the over-12 population.

Community size has changed; bigger markets.

Over the twenty year period, the proportion of millennials living in 1 million+ markets grew from 34% to 51%. In some cases the market grew around the millennial and in some cases the millennial gravitated to the big city. Bigger markets, yes – but it was a migration that involved the entire population of Canada.

Media consumption habits are very different.

Guess what. There was no internet medium twenty years ago. So this age cohort was raised at the bosom of online. So it is no surprise that today’s 18-to-34 year old is a heavy user of the internet and a much lighter user of every other medium. Twenty years ago 18-to-34 year olds were average users of all legacy media.

Today’s 18-to-34 year olds drink a bit less beer and liquor, but have about the same level of car ownership than their 20 year old counterparts.

They are less brand loyal and more price sensitive than 18-to-34 year olds were back in 1996. But then aren’t we all?

So the next time a targeting guru or newspaper reporter use the term “Millennial,” think “Lilliputian.”

The titles exist because authors have attributed imagined characteristics to both of these societies.


Rob Young is PHD Canada’s director of insights and analytics.