Millennials aren't the mystery they're made out to be

This opinion piece was published in American Banker online on February 2, 2017.
Written by Colleen Johnston.

Type the word "millennial" into your search engine and you will get a slew of articles and posts about this "disruptive" generation. Unfortunately, much of this diminishes an entire generation and treats them as a group rather than as individuals.

Online content and news generators have helped reinforce incorrect stereotypes of this group. Millennials are characterized as “entitled,” “sheltered” and “narcissistic.” One outrageous study from Scratch (Viacom Media Network) even suggests that millennials would rather visit their dentist than go to a bank branch. These types of characterizations are not only misleading but are also unhelpful in broadening the conversation we need to be having — about how banks can address millennials’ needs, expectations and experience. The stereotypes do not correspond with what we hear and see from millennial customers and employees.

At TD, we have over 5.5 million customers in the 18-35 age group. More than half of our 80,000 employees are under 35, and represent the vast majority of new hires. Millennials are already bankers today and will be the future leaders of our industry tomorrow.

Interestingly, despite their relative youth, millennials tend to be more conservative than their Gen X and baby boomer counterparts when it comes to money management. A CEB study has revealed that they are more likely to save and invest a greater percentage of their income and to have a budgeting plan in place. And, not surprisingly, they put a premium on being financially secure.

It is true that they view technology as a key enabler in managing their wealth and making their banking experience simpler and more convenient. According to a 2015 study on millennials conducted by Ipsos, two-thirds prefer to do their banking online. Further, research from CEB shows that half use their smartphones to manage at least a portion of their money.

However, their growing appetite for investment products and services, coupled with their concern about their financial future, is driving a need for increased personal engagement: advice on investment choices and planning. A recent study from Deloitte suggested that 84% of millennials want to talk to a person when making important financial decisions. And, according to a study conducted by Ipsos — commissioned by TD Bank — 50% tend to bank at the same institution as their parents. For TD, this number goes up to 65%.

Millennials are not a mystery to be solved solely through the introduction of new technologies. They are our customers, our people, our partners. And we speak with them every day.

They are not a group of digital natives forcing us all to scramble to meet their digital demands in the workplace or at the service counter as some routinely suggest. They are individuals, who happen to be under age 35, with specific needs and evolving aspirations. They are new grads, employees, homeowners, business owners, parents and investors. They are not a number to be pushed through an algorithm. They are people, each with unique goals and unique stories.

Here’s the paradox: While millennials are demanding new applications and simplified/friction-free transactions, they are also demanding a human connection. So while we are doing more digitally, online and through mobile, we are also reimagining how we deliver that human connection. Achieving the right balance will, to a large degree, determine the ability of our industry to succeed in the digital age.

To deliver our best to this generation, we must modernize long-established mindsets and cultures: less hierarchy, more collaboration and a greater emphasis on creativity and innovation.

As bankers, our job is not to “win” this new demographic. They don’t want to be won. They want to be served, advised and helped — one customer at a time. I spend a lot of time connecting with this generation of future leaders. They know what they want. We just have to listen.

Colleen Johnston

Group Head Direct Channels, Technology, Marketing and Corporate & Public Affairs

TD Bank Group