Generational insights: writing Millennial characters

Hello writer friends,

I just returned from Writers’ Digest annual conference. It’s one of my favorite events, and holds a special place in my writing life as the conference where I met my agent.

In case you missed it, I was thrilled to speak at the conference. I shared that Millennials are important because they’ve surpassed Boomers as the largest generation in the U.S., with $200B spending power per annum. Generations are defined by birth years. In this case, we’ll use Pew Research Center’s definition and consider Millennials to be currently 22-40 years old. Generational characteristics are informed by pivotal events in a shared time, geography and culture, especially within a person’s formative years, as well as parenting styles. Of course, none of this is to generalize or stereotype. Rather, as writers, we often celebrate the power of individual experiences. Still, it’s useful to be aware of key forces that differentiate generations in order to reflect characters authentically, especially in contemporary fiction. (Or, consciously choose when to diverge from that norm.) Characteristics we discussed include:

  • For the 1/3 of Millennials who complete at least an undergraduate degree, college debt can be a major burden. This can lead to delayed lifestages, with age of first marriage increasing from 20/23 in 1960 to 27/29 in 2017 for women and men respectively. Likewise, other milestones are delayed, ranging from starting a household, purchasing a home and having a child. This seminar inspired one author to use college debt as a conflict between her hero and heroine. Not to take any credit but I’m proud that her book went on to win a RITA!
  • Even for those Millennials who aren’t degreed, the generations’ been saddled with a reputation as being entitled. In contrast, social consciousness and environmental awareness have blossomed. And financial fortunes have bifurcated: 25% of American millionaires are Millennials.
  • Millennials are the most diverse adult cohort. 56% of people self-report as Caucasian and 44% as non-white. Diversity is evident not just in race or ethnicity, but also in religion, backgrounds and experiences. For many Millenniials, this diversity is natural and to be expected. It’s only noticed when it’s missing. We as authors can portray this diversity on the page as well…Not to “check a box” but to reflect our characters’ worlds authentically.
  • Technology-dependence. Millennials check their phones on average 150 times a day. Traditional watches are redundant, as the time is readily available on everyone’s phone. Millennials choose video over text, with youtube being the #1 preferred learning resource (ala how-to videos). Online/social media is the preferred news source, compared to TV and print for older generations. So, it’s no surprise that to you can effectively reach your Millennial audience through social media (even for blurbs, as Tommy Orange did for “There, There”)

Phew, that’s a mouthful! See my next post for a summary of my talk “Applying Best Practices in Design to Your Book Covers.”

Meanwhile, please let me know how you’re using these insights in your work!

Happy writing, Carol Van Den Hende, MBA

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