In every industry around the world, including coffee, companies are working hard to understand the consumption patterns of Millennials—the demographic born between the mid-1980s and the early-2000s. Millennials recently passed Baby Boomers as the largest generation in the workforce, meaning they have disposable income to spend.
So what drives Millennials? I fall into this generation, so I feel equipped to comment, or at least relay the exhaustive marketing research. We are creative and technologically savvy—we’re known as the first digital generation. We want to feel connected, and we constantly seek peer confirmation. We expect the brands we consume to contribute meaningfully to society. And many Millennials also believe that we are coffee experts. We relate coffee quality to sustainability, yet we’re not always willing to pay a premium price for that.
And that leads me to wonder: What about my generational counterparts in the coffee-producing world? Do these same demographic characterizations apply? From my personal experience, yes. And if it is so important to the health of the coffee industry to comprehend and connect to Millennial consumers, what about connecting with Millennial farmers?
Around the world, the average age of coffee farmers is steadily rising: In Colombia, it’s around 55. From Peru to Mexico, many regions are experiencing difficulties finding laborers. According to a Bloomberg article published in October, the cost of labor doubled in Colombia because of picker scarcity during the harvest. Producing coffee, especially specialty-grade, is a labor-intensive endeavor. Yet international prices have plummeted, and most farmers cannot even cover production costs–especially with labor costs rising–at current prices.
So it’s not surprising that many “Millennials” in producing countries do not see a sustainable future in coffee farming. A Millennial farmer growing up on a small coffee farm has likely never experienced long stretches of stability and plenty. Unlike their parents, who lived through the coffee bonanza and high prices in the 1970s and 80s, Millennial farmers grew up around the price crash of the 1990s. Since the dissolution of the last International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1989, free market pricing has turned coffee farming into a volatile source of income. Many young farmers prefer to leave coffee and move to urban areas.
And this is serious news for our coffee industry. To ensure our sustainability in the long term, it’s crucial that we engage with young farmers and address the growing generation gap. We can conceivably draw insights from the abundance of research on Millennial behavior.
According to a Pew Research Center study, Millennials like to feel as though they’re connected to peers and to causes. We can see this reflected in coffee. At a Let’s Talk Coffee training event organized by Sustainable Harvest earlier this year in Huila, Colombia, we saw energy created by bringing together young farmers, agronomists, cuppers, and even green buyers from around the country. A large number of the attendees were between the ages of 18 and 34. We puzzled over tasting notes together, posed questions during panel discussions, and exchanged Whatsapp messages at breaks. At this unique event, youth had the opportunity to connect to a larger coffee community. The sense of participating in something global is extremely important to the young generation.
“In the last few days we were able to get to know one another and access a global vision,” Alexander Contreras Henao, a 19-year-old cupper from Antioquia, said at the conclusion of Let’s Talk Coffee. “We can’t think about the personal, but rather we need to think about the big picture.”
As an unprecedented and direct result of the connections forged in Huila, a cupper from Federación Campesina del Cauca will fly 850 miles to Northern Colombia this November to help another cooperative with quality control during harvest. The cooperative Asoanei has, for the first time, deployed its own team of cuppers to oversee harvest. Thanks to hours of training with Q Trainer Claudia Rocío Gómez, this group of young cuppers is prepared to lead lot separation and quality analysis at collection stations in the remote Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. Lisbeth Maca, the cupper from Cauca, will spend two months working with friends in the mountain indigenous communities.
Another point taken from Pew Research Center’s study on Millennials: The people of this generation seek fulfilling, creative careers. The professionalization of coffee is particularly important to young generations. Cupping and agronomy are compelling career paths and gateways into sustainable coffee farming. Knowing how to cup is a skill that opens the door to young women and men interested in coffee. As cooperatives seek differentiated markets, cupping is an important tool they can use to improve quality, reduce rejections, and access higher prices. It’s also very nuanced, influential work.
At 21 years old, Ati Zeygundiba is the head cupper at Asoanei. To her, cupping combines sensory discovery with the ability to help her community.
“Every day I like this work more,” she told me. “And everyday I fall more in love with coffee and cupping. It’s rewarding to be able to say to the producer, ‘You’re missing something here. Maybe we should look at your processes.’ It’s wonderful that you can help him.”
Millennials, in the simplest terms, are the future. They’re the next generation of home buyers, taxpayers, and consumers, and in North America we put no small amount of energy into understanding their behavior. Similar efforts are, and can, be made to engage coffee farmers of this generation in the craft and profession of coffee farming. The sustainability of our industry may depend on it.