A couple years ago, I was sitting in the backroom of a focus group for a local media & arts high school, when I heard several teachers and parents proclaim, “We’re an arts school, why are we prioritizing sports?”
I felt myself cringe. Not just because I’m on the board of that school and believe in cultivating the whole student, which includes facilitating their physical well-being and teaching the lifelong skill of teamwork. Not just because I myself was a varsity athlete, percussionist, and jazz pianist throughout all four years of high school. But also because I’ve had the privilege to do research with teens and young millennials. To silo their identities is to misunderstand what these generations are all about.
I hear it all the time: “Millennials hate being categorized.” (So does Gen Z, the current K-12 generation behind Millennials.) But from the research we’ve done at Research Narrative, the issue isn’t that younger generations hate being categorized, it’s that they literally just don’t relate to the categories. We see this a lot in popular press – the fluidity of sexuality, of gender, of identity. At Research Narrative, we’ve had the good fortune to work on both Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Big Freedia, and both shows drove home the reality that even the simplest of binary categorizations are no longer simple. (Both shows also drove home the reality that when you have talent and work ethic, fans really just don’t care if you identify as male, female, neither, or both.)
Of course, even as we acknowledge younger generations’ propensity to eschew categorization, we invest our business and research dollars in creating classifications. We do segmentation studies to label people. We build target segments for marketing campaigns. We craft algorithms to classify people into like-minded attitudinal groups, and cross-tabulate people into demographic and behavioral buckets. When research participants express beliefs or behaviors that are perceivably complex or inconsistent, executives often think the research is wrong, instead of remembering that people are profoundly multi-dimensional.
I call our desire to categorize people into limited silos “The Breakfast Club Syndrome.” It’s a behavior that Gen Xers & Boomers are highly guilty of perpetuating, even as we wax nostalgic about the movie that reminded us that we hate being over-classified ourselves. Are you the jock? The artist? The nerd? Or like me, are you perhaps a bit of all of the above?
As John Hughes so brilliantly wrote 30+ years ago, “You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”
Simple, convenient classifications can be useful – they make the complex palatable, they bring intricate patterns into focus. But take it from this business-owning, street-dancing, ragtime-playing, athlete statistician: sometimes over-classifying people just makes us overlook the heart of who they are.
One such example making the rounds in the media these days is the topic of immigrants. Watching or reading the news in the U.S., one might conclude that immigrants are taking all the jobs away from Americans. The narrative is often a one-dimensional portrayal of the immigrant as job stealer. And if we look at things through that oversimplified lens, we might conclude that slowing immigration could curtail unemployment or raise wages. In some vocations, this is arguably true. As recently as a year ago, several downtown Los Angeles garment factories were unearthed as immigrant sweatshops paying well beneath legal minimum wage. It seems unlikely that this type of sub-poverty-line employment strategy would have succeeded for so long with an employee base of acculturated Americans.
At the same time, our own research suggests that the opposite is also true: that immigrants are more likely to become employers. A study we conducted in 2015 found that immigrant Millennials are 62% more likely than their American-born generational counterparts to self-identify as entrepreneurial and 20% more likely to express interest in starting a business. And we’re not alone in unearthing this finding: a 2012 report found that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born citizens. Google, AT&T, eBay, PayPal, DuPont, and even Procter & Gamble all had immigrant founders. (Click here for a fun list of some well-known companies with immigrant founders!)
No group is without multiple dimensions. No person is, either. If it’s hard to figure out what a customer or audience is all about, if it takes time to figure out the intersection(s) of their dimensionality, you’re doing something right. Figuring people out is hard. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be an entire professional discipline around understanding consumer behavior.
So to the teachers, the parents, the researchers, and the consultants who reduce the dimensionality of humans, please remember: each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case. (Some might even cop to being a princess or a criminal.)
Remember that, and you just might find the answers to your questions.
Childhood Fan of The Breakfast Club