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Millennials have it tough

We are all creatures of habit, comfortable with our daily routines. The reason for this habit is that we get a sense of fulfilment or reward with each activity - recognition and reward from our parents, friends and coworkers. It starts early when our parents compliment us for doing something right, teachers do the same and over the years we are fed with the right type of encouragement. Our parents try to establish good habits and attempt to rid us of bad habits; nail biting, slouching, not finishing our food, or not completing homework, etc. I was intrigued to read that US company, Behavioral Technology Group Inc. markets a device that uses an electric shock to break bad habits. It’s called a Pavlok. How does it work? Well, you buy a rather expensive wrist device, like a Fitbit and wear it on your wrist. When pressed it delivers a low-level electric shock to you! So if you have a tendency to snack, bite your fingernails, or your hair, you decide which habit you would like to stop and give yourself a shock every time you do it. Over time the pain associated with the negative activity should make you stop. Interesting right?

No discussion on habits is complete without a reference to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit who researched the science of habits. Habits, good and bad are formed through what he calls the “action–reward” cycle. In simple terms, this means that I will continue doing an activity if I get a reward, the form of which can vary. If regular exercise is important, most likely this habit was formed because of the consequential reward (increased strength or weight loss) or, for others it could be a different type of reward; the opportunity to have a chat and coffee with gym buddies, or even a sweet snack which you can consume without feeling guilty. These are important rewards that help to form the habit through completion of the reward-cycle. In short, we establish these habits through positive reinforcement. The same principle applies to the world of commerce.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) launched their Febreze odour buster in 1993. Whilst it clearly worked commercial sales were disappointing. Research revealed that people get accustomed to the odours they are exposed to which meant that people living in homes with bad or strong odours got used to them and did not find them objectionable! Eventually, P&G discovered that whilst people did not notice the bad odours, the act of using the spray at the end of the cleaning cycle gave them the satisfaction of a task well completed. By adding a scent, P&G was able to create a new product that reinforced the ‘job well done’ emotional reaction. Febreze was re-launched in 1998 and within months the product was a hit, going on to become a $1 billion product, with several product extensions including air-fresheners and laundry detergents.

So what does this have to do with millennials? For all of us the habit of collecting information is a powerful habit. Prior to the internet age, information was limited and cost money. Newspapers and magazines had to be purchased and hence were in limited supply. Whilst this was a handicap in the search for information, it had a positive benefit by allowing the completion of the “action-reward” cycle. Once the daily newspaper was read, we could pat ourselves on the back and say “well done”. We now know everything there is to know about the world yesterday! Even when studying. The only resources were the few books at the library. Once read and understood, that was it. There were no more resources to chase down or read and so the reward was always in sight and achievable.

That’s not the case now though and hence I say that “Millennials have it tough”. There is an endless supply of information on every conceivable subject. Websites, blog posts, video’s – it seems there is no limit to how much time you can spend researching a topic and most of it is available free. Here’s the unfortunate consequence for the millennials. When then do you get the positive affirmation required to complete the reward cycle? It’s tough to get to the “pat on the back” moment because it is simply impossible to consume all the content. Hence, some resort to blog posts and shout-outs as a means of getting fulfilment or recognition so they can close the reward cycle.

One should note that writing an internet blog, or getting published online is so easy today. This means the views of experts and commentators are treated equally. The situation was different before when books and newspapers were the only publication options. Then, content generally went through a vetting process. Today it’s publish first, verify later, or even don’t bother. So, for millennials, not only do they have to wade through piles of information, they need to weed out stuff that is clearly false or poorly researched. So millennials, you are going to have to draw boundaries if you want to find fulfilment and complete the reward cycle. Hence I say you have it tough!

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