Last Friday I posted a fun song about Millennials. Earlier this year a number of articles told of a Pew Research report that declared there are more Millennials in America than Baby Boomers. There are now over 75 million people ages 18-34. Boomers (ages 51-69) are no longer the largest demographic. (And there are more 22-years-olds today than any other age group.)
This was inevitable, of course, but something that has startled many that it happened so soon. Especially when the report claims that the number of Millennials in America will continue to grow via immigration.
So what’s the big deal?
For years I have taught writers to be aware of population trends. I kept saying “In ten years, that 15-year-old playing video games on his phone will be an adult and a potential reader of your book. And you will only be 10 years older.”
Consider this. Those who read Janette Oke when they were younger, now have children who are that age…who have never heard of Janette Oke.
Let me say it another way. The 30 -year-old lover of fiction was nine-years-old when Left Behind was first published….(1995). They did not necessarily grow up with Left Behind as a “bestseller” in their world. For them the major book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first published in the U.S. in June 1997. When they were 11.
That is why the marketplace never tires of trying to find new writing talent because there are always new generations of readers.
The Mindset List
Beloit College creates a “Mindset List” describing the mindset of the year’s incoming Freshman to help professors know the framework with which these students operate culturally. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list with a different subject in mind. Mine is today’s 30-year-old reader.
For someone born in 1986 or later:
Superman has never had a phone booth in which he can change.
There have always been gay characters on television.
They never heard Muhammed Ali speak at a live event.
There has always been a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Castro has always been an aging politician in a suit.
Datsuns have never been made.
Iraq has always been a problem.
Bert and Ernie are old enough to be their parents.
They never heard Howard Cosell call a game on ABC.
Trivial Pursuit may have been played by their parents the night before they were born.
They have never been able to find the “return” key.
There has always been Diet Coke.
The three-point shot has always been a part of basketball.
“The Simpson’s” TV show debuted when they were four-years-old.
The Statue of Liberty has always had a gleaming torch.
Peeps are not a candy, they are your friends.
South Africa’s official policy of apartheid has not existed during their lifetime.
This generation has never wanted to “be a Pepper too.”
Hip-hop and rap have always been popular musical forms.
They were in early high school when 9/11 happened.
[some items on this list is from the Beloit College web site]
You get the idea? So how does this affect you as a writer?
Never Assume Cultural Knowledge
As the above list illustrates, if your book makes a comment about the Fall of Saigon… or President Ronald Reagen’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall” speech you must be aware that many readers may not know what you are talking about!
Never Assume Biblical Literacy
We also have a generation where many have not grown up in a church-going environment. Therefore you cannot take for granted that your reader is familiiar the allusion you make to a Biblical idea or concept. In 2010 Pew Research did a survey and found that less than half of the public knows the Four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John or that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation.
In a Barna Research poll in 2015 barely half of those surveyed thought the Bible was the Word of God without error. And among Millennials, 23% believe that the Bible, the Koran, and the book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths. And yet those same Millennials when asked if they were somewhat knowledgeable (up to highly knowledgeable) about the Bible 84% claimed they “knew” the Bible.
In other words, the person to whom you are writing may or may not have the same understanding of the Bible, theology, church-life, etc. as you do.
Thus the challenge for the writer. To communicate the power of the Good News to a dying world. But to do so in a way that communicates clearly. One way I have described it is to say “It is no longer ‘Evidence that Demands a Verdict’ but instead ‘Evidence that Demands a Story.’” And by story I mean both fiction and non-fiction. Engaging the reader with a compelling story can be a vehicle to communicate some powerful truths. Truths that can change the world.
Not so biblically literate? Literate in a different way? Would they be interested in biblically allusive satire? along the lines of …
“I began reading and writing while still in the womb. There was a very tiny pen with me, about 1/10 the size of the zygote I was at the time, and there were books with me like the minute copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. When I came to the parts about the plethora of multi-various sea creatures (monsters really), I’d skip ahead real fast—trying also to see how long Captain Nemo was going to keep Professor Aronnax captive. I was finding the story a bit portentous, and anxious for him to escape but did not want the Professor among the sea monsters, either. ”
Quotation from a collection of exploratory essays in satire and creativity.
Thank you so much for this research and mindset list. Your insight made me realize when I consider my reader, my focus is too narrow. I need to adjust my lens because I zoom in too much on the obvious (female, Christian, wife/mother). I need a wide-angle view as well, so I can see more of my reader. I love when I read your posts and feel my brain grow a little! 🙂
Good post. Definitely something for writers to keep in mind, especially when employing idioms or items that will leave millennials scratching their heads. My niece was confused when she heard an old song with the lyrics, “Here’s my number and a dime / call me anytime.” She had no idea why anyone would need a dime to make a call, having never seen a payphone.
Thank you for the reminder to not assume the reader knows everything. Our generation of watching Lassie or the Rifleman would be foreign to today’s generation. Same goes with VHS movies and transistor radios. Insightful post.
Oh my. “Lassie” “The Rifleman”…
All in the Family
None of which were on TV in 1986 except as Cable reruns or DVD.
Excellent post! I’ll be sharing it on my Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Having worked in youth ministry the past ten years, I’ve especially noticed the biblical illiteracy. One kid thought Christ was Jesus’ last name, and why shouldn’t he when many churches expect people to automatically understand the lingo? My husband and I have learned not to take anything for granted when speaking to students and I hope I take that same approach when writing.
A perfect example.
Another kid might think Noah is the basketball center for the Chicago Bulls…because he is. Joahkim Noah.
And if it weren’t for the odd Russel Crowe “Noah” movie they might only know the name as being the story about “the boat guy.”
Or they may think Jonah is one of the Jonas Brothers…
These are excellent points. I didn’t know many biblically literate people growing up in my neighborhood at all. Actually, none who admitted to reading the Bible. And I’m 50! And grew up in a church!
I think I’d also add that millenials are more multiculteral than other generations. At least they are in my neck of the woods. I’d like to see more Christian fiction include more ethnicities to reflect where I live–the Baltimore-Washington area.
True. And publishers are very aware of that.
You might be surprised that there is more diversity in Christian fiction than you may think.
The problem is perception. It depends on the novel. Historical fiction may have diversity in the characters, but that isn’t what you are describing.
And an Amish setting would not be authentic if set in an Amish community in Pennsylvania and included a wide range of cultural and racial diversity. Unless it was the meeting of an Amish person with someone from the city. But the covers of the books create the perception of a lack of diversity.
I know your comment was not meant to be critical of Christian fiction and I’m not taking it that way. But it does touch on a point we see on a regular basis. There is a large swath of the public that has a limited perspective on what is in Christian fiction.
Some say it is all vapid and shallow. Poorly written. Squeaky clean and not in touch with reality. Etc. Etc. Those of us who watch the industry and read its books have a different and much broader understanding.
As the publisher of Enclave Publishing, where we create books of speculative fiction, I’ve been confronted with folks who won’t read them saying that “Christians can’t write good fiction.” I can only answer with “Have you read Kathy Tyers, or Jill Williamson, or Sharon Hinck, or Ronie Kendig, or John Otte, or Steve Rzasa, or Morgan Busse?” If not, then read one before criticizing.
I have to admit, being the parent of a 20-year old has left me perplexed more than once at the vast difference in thought processes. How can someone who’s embarking on retirement come close to reaching this generation through fiction?
The end of your post brought me hope, as it affirmed my own mission statement which I’ve taped to my computer monitor. It reads: “To write compelling Christian fiction that keeps readers engaged and illustrates Biblical principals through lifestyle evangelism.” I think it’s wise to leave the reaching to God and not try so hard to push things on this generation.
If millennials consider themselves biblical literates, they’ll have little, if any, tolerance for “preachy” tones handed to them in the form of story. I suspect they’ll be more likely to close a book and never pick it up again if they there’s a lesson being pushed on them.
I think our parents were as perplexed with us. It is a natural thing.
But depending on the type of fiction you are writing it may not be an issue. For example, if it is historical fiction the generation of the reader is not as important. Just that they enjoy historical fiction.
The irony is that the definition of “historical” continues to change. Books set in the late 60s or early 70s can be considered “historical” in some circles! After all 1976 was 40 years ago…the length of a Biblical generation.
Good stuff here, Steve. Well done.
I’m writing on a site called Wattpad where a lot of millennials read and write. In my latest attempt, the boy in my story is 14. I’ve had to get a young friend to help with the lingo. Even with that, I’m not sure how current it it’s. It’s definitely a challenge for this Boomer.
Wattpad has become an interesting place for content creation. The article below tells of their new expansion into Hollywood:
Fascinating information. Thank you.
YES! Thank you! When the world, the culture, the people themselves are in transition, the market needs to respond to that too. Pushing for that, WRITING for that audience, can get discouraging when the shelves don’t make room for the books, but hopefully a shift is imminent there as well.
Since my debut is finally contracted (Hallelujah!) I’m in the throes of marketing to this crowd. Not easy–but exhilarating for sure. It’s an exercise in perseverance and adaptability.
Informative and helpful article. Thanks. Will need to rethink some things for sure.
The mindset list actually blows me away….and makes me realize how much older I am than Millennials! My daughter is one, but she doesn’t seem so much like this list.
Very important points to keep in mind for future writing, and writing Millennial characters.
Exactly. Your daughter is on one end of the spectrum which means there is someone else who is on the other end.
It doesn’t mean we always write to the middle, only that we consider our audience when writing.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Steve, thanks for the super posting, I mentioned the Space Shuttle Challenger in one of my undergraduate classes recently and the only students who remembered it were my “non-traditional” (aka older) students. It’s wise to keep this information in mind as we write. (When I mention Tittley Winks, they look at me like I’m from Mars.)
The Challenger explosion is a perfect example. We who were adults at the time remember where we were when we first heard that awful news. (January 28, 1986)
By the way that great old game is one word and spelled “Tiddlywinks.”
Brennan S. McPherson
I’m 24 and can tell you that Diet Coke has, in fact, always existed.
Also…why would anyone want to, “Be a Pepper”? Maybe I shouldn’t ask… 🙂
Excellent information! Thanks, Steve!
Thank you for this insightful post, Steve. However, I’m wondering if there could be a reverse case… Is it possible to write a story that would connect with Millennials but not with any other age? Has there ever been any such incident?
Linda K. Rodante
I love the article, but I would love a list of items that Millennials do relate to–along with an explanation of what they are!
I’ll be retiring in five years (hooray!), but I still work with some younger folk. They’re in their early to mid twenties with young kids. They talk about work advancement, daycare, kindergarten, and elementary schools. The singles talk about work items, dates, the opposite sex, movies, sports and so on.
I’m thinking my writing should concentrate more on the above concerns instead of outright Scripture quotes and how the quotes apply to life?
Linda Riggs Mayfield
I was already past 50 when I enrolled in a doctoral program in education. The age ranges in online and traditional classes were vast! My final class was educational technology. Oh, mercy! Among other things, I learned to design an avatar and create and post an online interactive learning experience. Many of the things we did were as intuitive to the Millennials as breathing, and I self-identified as a Digital Dinosaur and struggled to learn it all–but I did, so that encourages me that building and crossing the generations bridge can be done. I Also learned that the birth years of my husband and me and our four children fall in FIVE different sociological generations, so I’ve had some practice! ? VERY relevant post, Steve!
This post was especially pertinent to me writing a historical novel spanning from 1952 to 2002. I have been aware of the necessity to explain people, events, etc. for the younger generations with no knowledge of what I’m writing about. But this mention has made this even more critical.
However, historical novels purposely contain such historical references. Since it appears that Millennials and the generation before them don’t have a grasp on history like Baby Boomers do, I want to help my readers get a knowledgable perspective of the past. Just watch those “man-in-the-street” interviews. “Who did we fight in the Vietnam war?” “Korea?”
More recent movies give such a skewed view of what really happened. I learned so much history reading historical fiction back in my day. It was always more palatable than dry history textbooks. Is this not still possible?