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Monetising millennials: what the corporate world thinks it knows about young people

At Sydneys Millennial 20/20 conference the wifi password is SmashedAvo and the attitude is predatory infantilisation

Before the opening keynote of the Millennial 20/20 Sydney conference, a man strides up, folds me into a boardroom-firm handshake and gazes deeply into my eyes.

His impeccably tailored business shirt, open to the third button, and swept-back blond hair make him look like a more handsome version of the Trump sons, maybe a second cousin. But our meeting is an error; I inadvertently sat in one of the conferences many designated networking spaces, signalling that I wish to be approached. By the time I apologise and move away, he is deep in conversation with someone else.

Millennial 20/20, held this week, was a two-day meeting of hundreds of marketing executives, CEOs, startup founders, digital salespeople, youth publishers and app developers all looking to answer one question: how to convince, coax, distract, datamine or otherwise compel young people to give their companies money. Representatives from some of the largest brands in the world gathered to swap success stories, share tips, and peacock their youth-whisperer cred in front of any potential poachers.

Junior vice-presidents from blue-chip firms such as Telstra, Microsoft and Mondelz International rub elbows with more familiar brands such as Airbnb, Deliveroo and Pandora. New media doyens from Vice and BuzzFeed circle, chatting with swarms of emissaries from adventurously named outfits youve never heard of, like Zuper and Paddl. Together they comprise a large portion of what is nebulously termed the new economy and a not-insignificant slice of the global one, so their collective perception of my generation carries weight, whether its accurate or not.

After two days surrounded by that collective perception, the thought is not encouraging.

Millennial 20/20 is at Carriageworks, a vast converted former railway depot in Redfern. When home to a conference like this, the venue becomes the exposed-brick-and-beam embodiment of the bloodless one-world aesthetic the conference is here to spruik; all reappropriated industrial working-class chic and graffiti reading HOPE.

A ping-pong table, unloved redoubt of startup offices the world over, sits neglected to one side, the Double Happiness slogan adorning it neither noticed nor understood. The Economist sponsorship stand is handing out free vegetable smoothies, ostensibly to make a point about food waste. The hand soap dispenser in the bathroom bears a Mark Twain quote urging me to Explore. Dream. Discover.. The wifi password is SmashedAvo.

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Disruption, innovation and content, content, content. Photograph: Alamy

From the Pyramid Stage, festooned with artificial ivy vines, speakers dispense wisdom on the mystical millennial, a term that remains conveniently undefined. Devoting so much effort to understanding young people may have seemed too fogeyish.

The insights, such as they are, sometimes reveal more about the speakers than the young consumers that they profess to know. Facebook Australias marketing head tells the audience the key to a purposeful life is work-life integration, rather than work-life balance, and cites an example about the importance of diversity from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who encourages teachers to tell parents that their assertive daughter is not bossy, but rather has executive leadership skills.

But the main attraction isnt the speakers; its the opportunity to network, and these people network hard. On stylised picnic tables and precarious barstools scattered throughout the hall, marketing executives in smart casual collect phone numbers and LinkedIn contacts with the fervour I once applied to amassing Pokemon cards. The only time someones not trying to sell me something is in the bathroom, an exhausted attendee says.

The presentations pass by in a blur. I lose count of the number of times someone mentions disruption, or extols the virtues of starting a conversation. The speakers are in furious agreement that millennials are a rich gold seam waiting to be tapped, needing only the right combination of effortless cool, total authenticity and microscopic data tracking to crack it open.

Given the way that many of these companies treat the young people they claim to have such deep connections with, its not surprising that a great deal goes unsaid. A co-founder of youth site Pedestrian.tv hosts a panel dedicated to unpacking where millennials are spending their money, but gives no insight into whether content on his website paid for by a front group for the Australian Taxpayers Alliance, a pro-tobacco lobby group, successfully induced more young people to take up e-cigarettes.

Representatives from the Commonwealth Bank and Westpac wax lyrical on building a culture of innovation, but have nothing to say about their exploitative lending practices encouraging young would-be homeowners to take out mortgages they cant afford. Unilever is eager to showcase its work keeping Weis Bars Australian-made since buying out the Toowoomba family business in August; less so to highlight the boycott its Streets ice-cream brand is facing for cutting workers wages by almost half.

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Cutting costs by denying workers basic rights and conditions is as old as the hills, but do it via a smartphone app and youre a paragon of innovation. Photograph: Pekic/Getty Images

But its when the we-are-your-friends shtick gets personal that it really starts to unsettle. Michael Pearson, the managing director of travel website Expedia, wonders why millennials are delaying those key life purchases such as houses and weddings; he boasts that his firms 700 data scientists trawl their customers information to target them as minutely as possible. I know where he lives, I know he has a wife and two kids, Pearson enthuses. A representative from the Accor hotel chain speaks of a new alternative accommodation option for backpackers, the Mama Shelter, designed to replicate the feeling of being in your mothers arms.

That attitude of predatory infantilisation seeps into everything here. Its in the free donuts, branded fidget-spinners and misshapen Rubiks cubes sponsors are giving out in exchange for contact details. Its in the endless, slickly produced promotional videos, splashing all-caps banalities such as LIFE IS AMAZING and COME AS YOU ARE over footage of people running through meadows and the swelling of childrens choirs. Its in IYC POP, a sponsor slinging frozen cocktails in Calippo-like sleeves which vaunts itself as a luxury popsicle for adults and a true disruptor in the frozen confectionary industry.

Most of all, its in how completely this congregation believes its own sermon. These people want to believe so badly that they are the harbingers of something bright and new, when theyre really just inventing more efficient ways to do what big businesses have always done: make mountains of money by screwing people over. Cutting costs by denying workers basic rights and conditions is as old as the hills, but do it via a smartphone app and youre a paragon of innovation. It is dead-eyed capitalism with Snapchats puppy filter on.

I learned very little about millennials at Millennial 20/20, save that a great many people are working very hard to turn us upside down by our ankles and shake us until money comes out. Being part of a generation bent under neoliberalisms deadening legacy, from housing affordability to climate change, is exhausting enough; to see the companies that profit off our exploitation rhapsodise about their self-appointed status as change makers and thought leaders just adds salt to the wound.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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