The World is Flat. Are Its Generations?

By Iryna Lozynska

Thomas Friedman’s optimistic bestseller of the early aughts opens up with vistas of Bangalore, Silicon Valley East, the ground zero for that freshly levelled playing field, rising on the convergence of PCs, fiberoptic cables, MNCs, free trade, and the inevitability of global integration. In line with Friedman, the triumphant McWorld, envisaged in 1992 by Benjamin R. Barber, was supposed to bring the emergence of a global homogenous consumer, and conservative ethnocentric views were expected to give way to a global identity in a multicultural world.

In a reality filled with global alliances, global brands, and global media, there is often a powerful urge to generalize around the persona of this global homogenous consumer, especially its most integrated, most technologically immersed, and most populous demographic sliver – Millennials. Some say Millennials have come of age during Peak Globalization; yet others assert that Millennials’ rise has actually coincided with the dawn of Deglobalization.

Either way, the fates of Millennials and globalization appear to be intimately connected. What will this relationship mean for the future of our global homogenous consumer? Is the Millennial generation converging on the cusp of shared global values, or is this all a social media mirage in the fake news oasis? Ultimately, what does this all mean to brands and businesses? Do Friedman’s prophesies still hold true in the Millennial Moment?

There are plenty of in-congruencies in Millennial platitudes, owing to, in part, the Western slant of existing research. The Millennial Spotlight is actually more of an emerging world story, contrary to the advertising stereotypes with their microbreweries and avocado toast aesthetic. Nine out of 10 Millennials live in emerging economies, while China’s Millennials outnumber the entire US population, and the West comprises only 12% of the two billion global Millennials. Another issue is not about “where” but about “when.” In the West, the biggest population leap occurred after World War II, while many developing nations saw the boom in the late 1970s to early 1990s – this not only means that the West’s Baby Boomers are decades older than the Rest’s, but also further questions the simplicity behind placing the equation sign between Millennials of different countries.

Millennials of the world do share plenty of things in common though. For one, the consumption-oriented attitude is near-universal, riding on the wings of political moves of late 1980s-early 1990s that shaped Millennial childhoods: the collapse of USSR, Reaganomics, and the opening of China are just some of the political events that awakened a cross-cultural passion for spending which is resonating more with Millennials than with the Post-War Generation. Other major commonalities include interest in things beyond national borders – nearly half of Millennials like to surround themselves with things from different cultures, with social media usage and broad access to smartphones behind the trend.

Customization, loyalty, and premiumization are also frequently identified as cross-culturally relevant for all Millennials. According to a Mastercard / Kantar study, globally 67% of Millennials prefer to buy brands that tailor to their needs, while a whopping 73% expect to be able to customize products and services. In India and China this expectation is even greater, and the same goes for values like loyalty/rewards. Opinions around luxury/premiumization further demonstrate cross-cultural differences: while the West’s Millennials are all about “more experiences, less stuff,” China’s Millennials see luxury purchases as reward for their hard work.

Other cross-cultural Millennial differences are no less nuanced. For example, according to a seminal study by Glocalities, open-minded idealism and prioritization of personal development over material goods is a Millennial category trait most common in the West (29% of Millennials in Europe, 23% in the US, 28% in Canada, and 29% in Australia) while reaching only around 16% representation in Asia, Russia, Turkey, and South Africa. Scales tip the other way where fascination with money, risk, and adventure are concerned – here Asian Millennials are overrepresented, as with preference for tradition, etiquette, and structure, where they are joined in like-mindedness with peers from Russia, Turkey, and South Africa.

Noteworthy details emerge on Millennials’ relationship with technology. For example, while Millennials everywhere are more tethered to their gadgets than previous generations, an Accenture study shows China’s Millennials spend more time online than their peers elsewhere. While this fact does not deny the reality of converging global Millennial consumer values around smart gadget technology and its corollaries like ecommerce and experiential consumption, it places China significantly in the lead when it comes to faster, bigger, and better impact China’s Millennials will have on their country’s (and the world’s) entire business models versus the impact Western Millennials will have.

When it comes to leadership and entrepreneurial ambitions, a Harvard Business Review study shows subtlety underneath the shared umbrella of commonalities. While overall Millennials say becoming a leader is important to them more frequently than Gen Xers, respondents in the Nordic countries are far less enticed by the prospects of leadership than their Millennial peers in Mexico or the UAE, for example. This divergence of attitudes will result in a new generation of leaders shifting political and corporate decision-making away from the West and decentralizing power across the levelled playing field of the Emerging Rest. At least as far as leadership values are concerned, Friedman seems to be vindicated.

What will the future bring? By far the starkest differences between the Millennials of the world are concealed in their attitudes toward perspectives. Here, on the wings of tech innovation and trust in progress, Millennials in upcoming economies are far more optimistic about their future than Millennials elsewhere. And not one cohort is as pessimistic as Europe’s Millennials, scarred by memories of austerity policies and zero-growth economy. The Glocalities study (and Deloitte, and Pew), shows that more than half of Asian Millennials believe that technological progress will “make a world of abundance possible for all of humanity.” Among European Millennials, only one in three has this opinion, and in the US  this is almost half. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker said societal pessimism is “wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong,” and yet it seems to take hold in Friedman’s flat world, albeit in lopsided fashion, abundant in the West and an outlier in the Rest.

Through the patchwork of surveys, scholarly articles, and studies, a complex picture of the Global Millennial emerges. Mega-themes seem to hit this cohort in equally broad strokes, but the nuances show that global homogeneous consumers are as much at the mercy of cross-cultural trends as they play to the tune of local contexts. Global and local values, identities, and profiles thus do not appear to be at war with one other but rather seem to coexist, demonstrating varying degrees of relevance in varying situations. It’s not that the world and its generations are more flat as it is that they are more glocal, with overarching global themes working along with specific local factors. Glocalization, or the co-presence of both universalizing and particularizing tendencies, is a 1980s buzzword (and an established practice for many companies) but holds as true as ever in the multifaceted ways Millennials respond to global and local elements of their identities and values. The fate of our global homogeneous consumer is therefore tied to the whims of the glocal, making Friedman’s levelled playing field a more interesting topography.

Iryna Lozynska is a Senior Research Consultant at M-Brain Group.

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