How many different ways can Millennials be broken down, analyzed, generalized, and labelled? In an earlier blog post for Big Think, Will Millennials Remember Bill Clinton? I wrote about the problem of speaking of Millennials, a cohort of 80 million people ranging in ages 19 to 36 years old, as if they hold a universally shared set of preferences. What is most important in the development of “generational” attitudes are the experiences one has in early adulthood – a relatively short and highly variable temporal window. Of course, that won’t stop marketers, politicians, thought leaders, and a multitude of others from alluding to Millennials as a hive-like monolithic block.
With that point made, allow me to paste a new label onto our country’s most-labelled demographic: Millennials are the food truck generation. 47 percent of Millennials have eaten from a food truck, making them the most likely patrons of those mobile establishments that their parents were more apt to refer to as “roach coaches” or “gut trucks.” Food trucks have been around in some form or another for most of the 20th century, but they were more culturally recognizable as fixtures of isolated workplaces like manufacturing plants and construction sites. On a personal note, I have never passed up on the opportunity to visit a diner, dive or truck for a great meal that always seems to taste better on cheap plates or standing up outside.
Today, though, food trucks are estimated to be a $2.7 billion industry and have been reappropriated into a younger, more affluent, more urban cultural ethos. The mass migration of Millennials into cities mirrors to some extent the proliferation of the food trucks on those same city street corners. With their DIY sensibility and appealing sort of grubbiness, food trucks cater to younger folks who have come to search for “authenticity” in their brands – or rather products that give the appearance of being “brandless”. They can be exotic, focusing on culinary styles and traditions that larger-scale restaurants can’t take the risk on. They can be essentialistic, centering themselves around a single type of dish or ingredient. Their food can be pretty fancy (imagine a French brasserie on four wheels), even without a posh presentation to go with it. And they can be very, very cheap. My favorite is the MIT inspired Clover Food Lab as well as a great cupcake truck on the streets of Denver.
So is it that the proclivities of these young hip urbanized eaters have spurred the rise of the gourmet-food-truck phenomenon? Or is there a larger force that has shaped both the landscape of the restaurant industry and Millennial tastes at once? Food trucks are probably more a product of harsh economic realities than a response to demand from a burgeoning group of consumers. The 2008 recession created an abundance of unmanned “roach-coaches” that lost their business as the construction industry went into a freeze. Meanwhile, numerous high-end restaurants were forced to close and downsize, pushing chefs out of their jobs, while making it prohibitive for culinary entrepreneurs to open up new establishments. Being far cheaper and less risky to establish, the food truck business was suddenly an appealing, if not necessary, path for out-of-work chefs with a creative bent.
At the same time, the recession has had a profound effect on the development of Millennial attitudes, perhaps more so than anything else except for the maturation of the Internet. Unlike many other recent historic events – the arc of the Great Recession has been extraordinarily long, and not defined by any one moment or image. Its faded presence is still felt even now as the economy continues to recover. With the length of its reach, the recession has figured into the formative early adult experiences of multiple subsections of the overall Millennial cohort. It has affected where they can live, what jobs are available to them, the amount they owe in student loan debt, whether they own a car, their ability to get married and start a family, their parents’ retirement plans, who and what they trust, and more still beyond that. They look at money differently than their parents did, and have constructed for themselves a far different consumer identity, one that interprets cultural status, brands (especially big brands), authenticity, and consumer savviness in a new way. The food truck economy provides a way for personalized food, that is inherently social (you are eating on the street), from a local vendor that is often the person making the food right in front of you — the ultimate transparency.
There are all sorts of ways to define a Millennial, but I don’t think there is any more important and wide-spanning feature of this young generation than that they grew up in difficult and fast-moving social and economic climate. The recession has turned Millennials into a more frugal, more transitory, more minimalistic, and perhaps more discerning group than their parents. You can label them the Recessionary Generation, or the Digital Generation, if you want, but revealed behavior is always better than an arcane classification and calling them the Food Truck Generation is more pleasing to me, even if just as fraught a demographic exercise. After all, Millennials have been molded by the same economic fires that have turned food trucks into a culinary and economic phenomenon. In a way, they were made for each other. Other industries and brands might glean insights from the food truck economy – as it may shed light on what the next cohort of consumers likes, wants and will pay for. Now it’s time to hit the street for lunch.
MIT AgeLab’s Adam Felts contributed to this article.
Photo Credit: Getty Images Steve Sands / Contributor