The Ethics of Millenial Discontent

Sean Green and Neil Holbert
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways
  • The world of the millennials has the potential to be an interconnected, dynamic and creative one, but it also offers a cornucopia of low-cost virtual outlets for discontent and frustration.

  • The impulse to share and to create does not gestate well within a heavy cloud of discontent.

  • Marketing knows that the pursuit of happiness can, indeed, lead to many perceptions of a successful hunt.

​​​​​Is marketing research today employing the right measures of depth and permanence when it comes to millennial dissatisfaction?

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” says Richard III, at the very beginning of the eponymous Shakespeare play. A chilling thought, perhaps.

For millennials, though, it is always the winter of their discontent, it seems. And it could be argued that marketing is the principal—if not the sole—cause of this blue funk.

Should we be concerned that marketing’s “dirty little secrets” are the root cause of this? Marketers could benefit by thinking about this and, among other issues, the matters of ethics and measurement.

Let us be clear, first of all, that the term millennials is a fluid and notional one. Let’s just say that right now—in the mid-2010s—they’re the group born between 1985 and 2000, making them now between age 15 and 30. (Pause while marketers stop to wipe their watering mouths.) These millennials, then, were born when personal computers first entered our homes, the first Cold War ended, and 9/11 had not yet happened. They’re full of hope and angst, and at the same time, are imbued with the possibilities of technical wizardry and global fogginess.

So how do we address this group? What do we tell them? What do we ask of them? Let us remember that these millennials, as the inheritors of the yuppies of the 1980s, want stuff. (Yuppies generally are thought of as having no parents, no kids—only egos and ids). Even more than the yuppies, though, millennials want it all, and they want it now.

For millennials, “it” is the latest, coolest device allowing them access to everybody and everything in every medium, and “now” is not next week or tomorrow, but, well, now. (And the goal is not to keep up with the Joneses, but rather, communicate with the Joneses (and everybody else in all possible networks) about all things all the time—to the possibility of nuisance. But who cares?

To enable the millennials to get to such a nirvana, we submit that marketers may be going perilously beyond the bounds of textbook marketing, and fostering discontent at least twice in the process of persuasion. For example, when the search for the hot button of consumer response lands crushingly on the square called “discontent,” and we go from there, we suggest that it’s marketing’s dark and dirty little secret, and should be brought out into the sunshine for a little scrubbing.

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Author Bio:

Sean Green and Neil Holbert
Sean Green has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University at Buffalo and he currently teaches with the UB-SIM Program in Singapore. Neil Holbert has worked as a marketing researcher (Forbes, Unilever, Grey Advertising, Altria); teacher (NYU, Columbia, CUNY, most recently for SUNYBuffalo in Singapore and Baruch College); and writer. They can be reached at and, respectively.

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