Brands come to us to connect with young people through creative activation initiatives. Part of our obligation to our clients and the music fans who attend our events is to stay on top of the latest research concerning how young people thrive in their lives; how they make decisions, what motivates them, and what moderates their purchasing decisions. However at times, we need to reflect on our sources and question whether or not we are taking in the full picture. One point of critique we’d like to focus on in this piece is the de-gendering (i.e. to make gender neutral) tendency of research, partially due to our collective love of buzzy catchalls, such as ‘Youths’, ‘Millennials’, ‘Post x’ etc.

We first became conscious of the non-presence of gender in some youth research after reviewing an academic piece published in the Review of Business and Finance Studies (Tong, L. 2015). The paper was entitled “’The Young and the Restless’: Grappling with the Young Chinese Consumer Mindset”. The article dwelt on a few key internal conflicts that young people are now contending with. These include the tensions caused by; the need to both stand out and fit in, the desire for individual freedom while balancing society’s demands, and the discrepancy between soaring aspirations and limited opportunities (Tong, 2015 p.25).

Tong draws on the classic Confucian topology of societal relations (which coincidentally only refers to women within one configuration as shown below) to highlight that women are caught in a complex of pressures that often center on the need to sacrifice their own interests and desires to fulfil the roles that have been established for them – primarily by men, and the phallocentric institutional organs of the state. Tong explains:

…Chinese young women have their lives complicated several ways: first, they are facing the pressure (like their brothers) to be successful and to bring honor to their families. Second, in family decisions, young girls are more likely to be asked to make sacrifices and give the opportunities of education to their brothers, in the name of the family interest. Third, those who do get the chance to become educated, face the danger of becoming “unmarriable,” which is equally unacceptable by China’s norms today.


Tong pays particular attention to how gender inequalities contribute toward feelings of ‘restlessness’ in young Chinese people today, and this fact forms a starting point for our argument that there is – in much of the theory concerning young consumers – a subtle de-gendering going on. Furthermore this is not necessarily by choice, but rather due to a tendency to take categorical markers (e.g. “youth”, “millennial”, “gen-z”) and treat the terms themselves as being the subjects of study. Embodied realities are elided in favor of these androgynous terms, perhaps for convenience, or perhaps out of negligence. This tendency is carried through (or perhaps even originates from) the academic community, as we will show.

In ZenithOptimedia’s 2014 study “The Pursuit of Happiness: Creating Meaningful Brand Experiences for Millennials”, readers are presented with a framework for understanding how happiness can be figured within a young person’s decision making rationale. We are shown how the desire for freedom and need for control are balanced to enable the realization of personal happiness and satisfaction.

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“The Pursuit of Happiness: Creating Meaningful Brand Experiences for Millennials” p.27

It is an interesting framework that allows us to understand core motivations from a global perspective. But the subjects of this study, the ‘global youths’, are gathered under the umbrella term ‘millennial’, which is a construction. A young person is always situated, he/she has a gender, and while the study employs a fairly robust methodology, it does not give an accurate account of how core desires and needs are encumbered by embodied realities. What is this reality of the embodied subject? It is the reality of a living being, in relation to local cultures that may prioritise certain needs over others, certain gender roles over others, and perpetuate inequalities that render this convenient graphic into a representation of an ideological fantasy.

Let’s consider another example: a CiC / Group M Knowledge White Paper published in 2011 dedicates 78 pages to uncovering the “vibrant lives of digital youth”. Researchers monitored the activity that took place across 2000 young peoples’ Sina Weibo accounts, yielding a total of 1.2 million micro messages. The users were stratified according to age and region, but not gender. Why on earth didn’t the researchers think to categorize their sample by gender too? There could have been innumerable differences in the content and actual use of Weibo between young men and women.

Extending this argument into the strictly academic community, following a presentation entitled “When Chinese Youths ‘Meet’ Globalisation and Commercialisation: From the Perspective of Structural Effects”, audience members quizzed the researcher Dr. Zhu Di as to why he had used the fathers’ level of education as a benchmark to gauge the positive influence mobile phone ownership had on students, among other things. Furthermore, the sample of students wasn’t distinguished by gender. Looking at a transcript of the conference, we find an explanation from Dr. Zhu Di as to why he used the father as a reference point:

“I think why I measured the influence or ownership of smartphones from fathers’ education is mainly because of the assumption that we think the fathers’ education has more impact [on] the family’s economic social status than the mothers’ education. […]. But, I agree that […] the impact of mothers’ education [has grown] significantly in recent decades…(see page 44).

This comment highlights the fact that even the academic community itself is subject to the overriding tendency to perpetuate the assumption that questions of gender have a negligible consequence in youth research, or worse, to extend the systemically entrenched assumption of the presiding role of men in society by default. Of course this argument is only a starting point for further research. At the very least we wanted to acknowledge that at times, it is crucially important to question your own sources, and to weigh them up against the realities you see unfolding about you. Would a deeper acknowledgement of gender in commercial and academic research help when planning brand activity around engaging young Chinese consumers? It all comes down to making the right connections; this requires a deep understanding of real people, and real people have to contend with gender.


CIC & GroupM. 2011. The Vibrant Lives of Digital Youth: China’s Young Consumers in the Age of Social Media. [pdf] Available at: <> [Accessed 20th May 2015].

Tan, L. 2015. The Pursuit of Happiness: Creating Meaningful Brand Experiences For Millennials. [pdf] ZenithOptimedia. Available at: <> [Accessed 20th May 2015].

Tong, L. 2015. The Young And The Restless: Grappling With The Young Chinese Consumer Mindset. Marietta College Review of Business and Finance Studies, [e-journal] 6(2). pp.21-33.  Available at: <> [Accessed 1st July 2015].