Decoding the

A term that has been touted as seminal, but also overused, overhyped, over-essentialised – yet one that reframes our understanding of an entire generation. The world might be obsessed or sick of it, but quite unable to ignore it.

The truth remains that the mindset and behaviours of a generation are acutely shaped by the political, economic, and social milieu that they live in – one that is usually different from that of the previous generations.

Today, the term ‘millennial’ refers to a generation born between the 1980s and 2000, and accounts for 27 percent of the current global population. Understandably, the marketing industry has spent millions of dollars trying to understand the elusive millennial.

The shadow of the American millennial dominates the world’s imagination of this group, with labels such as “entitled” and “civic minded” marking the generation. What is understood is how American’s own political environment – a period of economic stability and belligerent foreign policy – might account for some of these traits.

For us in Asia, the inevitable question is then, how well do we understand the Asian millennial and how has Asia’s own political and economic context shaped them? If out of the 2 billion millennials in the world, a whopping 58% reside in Asia, with India, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam being some of the major heavy lifters, it becomes only logical to ask: are the traits of the American millennial transferable, and do they speak for all? More pertinently, how do Asian millennials’ unique world perspectives influence their notions of sustainability and world contribution?

An examination of global millennial views reveals that their perspectives towards world contribution are underpinned by their deeper notions of success and politics.


Notions of success are ultimately about differentiating the self from the masses, and carving out a recognised and admired self. This is shaped by a social context, namely economic opportunities as well as cultural values held by a society.

A study done by the Pew Research Centre on the perceptions of the economy around the world found that Asia, in comparison with Europe and the US, are generally optimistic about the state of their economy. This optimism is reflected in the way 94% of Vietnamese, 85% of Chinese, 71% of Bangladeshis and 67% of Indians feel that today’s children will be better off than their parents.

This juxtaposition of the West’s pessimism and the Asia’s relative optimism creates a potential explanation for differing notions of success.

Firstly, pessimism about the financial future in Europe and the United States might account for Western millennials deriving their feelings of accomplishment from the ability to be a critical part of something, rather than just financial gain, given the economic challenges. On the other hand, Asian millennials grew up in a period of rapid development and opening of markets, with ensuing political stability – a backdrop of hope and optimism that potentially fuelled the hunger and ambition seen in today’s Asian millennials.

According to Deloitte’s 2015 millennial survey, millennials in the Philippines display more ambition to achieve leadership positions than their counterparts in developed markets. The same survey shows that more than 65% of millennials in emerging markets aspire to become the “leader of most senior executives within their current organisation”, compared to fewer than 38% in markets such as France and Germany.

An examination of the different reasons why millennials in Asia strive to be leaders highlights another key difference in their notion of success. While American and European millennials prioritise opportunities to influence the organisations they work for, it is clear that in Asia, the importance of high future earnings still dominates motivation around work. Traditional ideas of ‘climbing the corporate ladder’ and accumulating financial wealth remain key to differentiating the self from the masses.

This highlights that while success broadly remains important to millennials across the globe, American and European millennials display a horizontal notion of success, where differentiation stems from uniqueness and the ability to influence. Asian millennials however, continue to view success as a stepped ladder, with hierarchical wins tied to financial success, as well as attaining seniority within their organisations.

This difference hints at the unique way Asian millennials perceive power – while the Western millennial believes strongly in the power of influence and speaking out to effect change, Asian millennials retain a conservative outlook towards hierarchy and respect for traditional markers of success. Often, personal stature and wealth accumulation tends to be a priority, especially for first jobbers, who believe that the ability to influence others about larger issues requires the legitimisation of seniority.


Millennials across the globe have often been labelled as apathetic and complacent within the political landscape; they have low voter turnout and are not present in formal politics. However, a recent report done by Public Religion Research Institute reveals that they are highly engaged, just not through the formal institutions recognised by older generations, thereby pushing political participation under the traditional radar.

With the rise of technology and social media, millennials engage with politics through these channels rather than conventional forms such as television news broadcasts and newspapers.

The rise of travel and the rapid developments in technology have resulted in a wider knowledge of global affairs and a greater sense of inter-connection than ever before. A shift towards a one-world philosophy has been witnessed among Western millennials, which was evident in 2016 with the EU Referendum and U.S Election. Overwhelmingly, millennials voted against perspectives that encouraged a less global reach.

This is where the paradox lies. According to the Journal of Democracy, “Millennials and East Asia’s Democratic Future”, Asian millennials take to online channels to read about and discuss politics actively, but this online interaction and advocacy does not necessarily translate into political action.

Where disenchantment of politics is felt among Western millennials, Asian millennials report feeling that their values and beliefs are represented by the government. Although the structure of democracy is desired, it is defined differently by Asian and Western millennials. For East Asian millennials in particular, political priorities of democracy include good governance and social equity, which are supported by economic development and social stability. Contrast this with the idealism of democracy for the ‘Western’ millennial, which is about freedom and liberty. The differing notions of vertical and horizontal success might have some impact on such different priorities.

While advocacy and engagement for change are key political attitudes, Asian millennials clearly prioritise pragmatic issues of governance and economic stability more.


How then, should brands tap into the social consciousness of Asian millennials, bearing in mind their different perspectives and priorities? Asian markets in particular have struggled with reconciling the popular pen picture of the ‘Western’ millennial with Asian realities, sensibilities, and practicalities.

These nuances explain the slow uptake of green marketing in Asian countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, and India. In India, the success of brands such as Chai Point, which offers hip eco-friendly cardboard tea flasks that depart from traditional tea-serving cups which are also eco-friendly, highlights the importance of visual signifiers around social causes that align with participation in a global imagination. Such examples reflect the continuing importance of ‘personal benefit’ to the consumer, with ‘world contribution’ as a secondary bonus.

With this knowledge, marketing to Asian millennials on social purpose necessitates taking into account their first priority of personal security and progress, followed by doing good. Specifically, social purposes that are married with a strong promise of participation in the global, status, or luxury, would appeal best to Asian millennials that are still striving to showcase economic stability and progress, while reflecting that through the causes they champion through consumerism.

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