Baby boomers were the analog generation; millennials are the digital. Forty years ago, discount retailers like K-Mart were a favourite with investors, and Wal-Mart grew rapidly without much competition.
Now, it is logistics and data management company Amazon that is growing at a rapid pace and decimating the competition. Amazon is a product of the digital-crazy millennial generation – the cohort born between 1980 and the mid-1990s to 2000. And they are changing the world from politics to investments.
Millennials are the first generation in history that have utterly grown up in a world of digital technology; they are what the Pew Research Center has called "Digital natives in a land of digital immigrants." And they are many. In fact, in 2015 Millennials became the largest share of the American labour force, surpassing Generation X, according to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Their numbers will make them dominate everything for years to come, just as the Baby Boomers did for the last 40 years.
Digital disruption is eroding many long held competitive moats. Millennials have been behind many brands' loss of luster, be it razors and shaving products; brands of spirits; and cigarettes to mention a few. They have been the antithesis of baby boomers. Baby boomers liked to own things and loved brands. Millennials do not have a preference for owning things and do not care about brands. Baby boomers liked to visit stores and "kick the tires" so to speak before they made a purchase. Millennials prefer to view things on line and avoid one-on-one interaction with sales people. They prefer to spend their time and money on experiences, eating out, concerts and wellness.
Amazon, with the help of millennials, has disrupted many businesses: the home electronics business service; builders' hardware distribution; automotive parts franchises; home delivery of prepared meals and services. Businesses with customers that have a need for a combination of products and advice are also disrupted by Amazon as consumers can now get advice and expertise for free via online videos while Amazon can be the seller of the products.
Amazon has sustainable competitive advantage due to its demand-side economies of scale (also known as network effects) and supply-side economies of scale. The more people use Amazon the more valuable Amazon becomes to customers, and the more Amazon sells the lower its average cost. The interaction of these two create Amazon's daunting competitive advantage.
In addition, Amazon has built an enormous global brand and an immense infrastructure, which allows for low-cost delivery and superior service. And it has invested heavily in leveraging its formidable digital platform.
Amazon is wreaking havoc on brick-and-mortar retailers. It has dominated e-commerce and it is the default web destination.
But what is next, and how far can Amazon and other digital behemoths be allowed to go? Will regulatory authorities stay on the side or step in? Will job destruction by Amazon exceed its job creation capabilities? How will governments react to this? Amazon, for example, already accounts for about 70 per cent of all e-book sales and 30 per cent of all U.S. e-commerce, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
Similarly, Google and Facebook control about 56 per cent of the mobile ad market. And Facebook controls 75 per cent of the mobile social media traffic. Such market concentration may be behind the decline in labour share of national income, the stagnation of wage growth, and the rise of inequality, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
Conscious of stagnant wages and lack of stable full-time jobs, millennials are insecure about their job prospects. But will their job insecurity become even worse as their idiosyncrasies create monster digital companies that will destroy many more jobs? How will millennials react to this?
It is estimated that by the year 2048, millennials will represent 39 per cent of the U.S. electorate – same as in other Western countries. This will give them significant voting power. In fact, they are already having a huge impact on elections. Millennials were behind Barack Obama's election in the U.S., Justin Trudeau's in Canada and Emmanuel Macron's in France. They were key supporters of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 U.S. election.
Because of its size and power, Amazon, if not stopped, may be broken. Millennials may make this happen. Antitrust regulators have already started to show some concern for all this, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. For example, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives' antitrust subcommittee had voiced concerns about Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods Market Inc. Even though they eventually approved it, the fact they expressed concerns indicates that pressures are building up at the government level and next time things may get more difficult for Amazon.
There is precedence for government to get involved when a company has become a dominant player in the market and uses its position to stifle competition. In 1998, the U.S. government sued Microsoft (and thereafter tried to break up the company) for using its influence and power to undermine its rival Netscape. But while a court decision that Microsoft should be broken was overturned on appeal, this slowed Microsoft's ability to dominate the internet. Is this also how Amazon's future will look like? And what does it mean for Amazon's lofty stock price?
George Athanassakos is a professor of finance and holds the Ben Graham Chair in Value Investing at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Western University in London, Ont..