Millennials Reframed

The widespread misjudging of an entire generation has serious implications for our collective future.

To say that different generations fail to understand each other is a cliché. True to form, in today’s world we hear a great deal about younger people, and the judgments are often negative.

Perhaps negativity has always filled the generation gap. First-century Roman poet Horace wrote: “What is there that has been left unruined? Our parents’ time was worse than was their parents’ time, and then they brought forth us, worse than they were, and after us will be our sons and daughters, worse than we are, then theirs, still worse than they” (Odes iii.6). In 1771 a reader sent a letter to Town and Country magazine bemoaning young men of the day as “a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles.” And in 1843, Britain’s House of Commons heard testimony declaring that the “morals of the children are tenfold worse than formerly.”

The generation receiving a significant amount of press commentary today are the millennials, also known as Generation Y. It may be that you’ve heard what a hopeless generation it is. A raft of opinions and myths have plagued this young cohort, who today are all grown up and constitute the largest demographic on earth. As their earning power increases, they’re also becoming the world’s most powerful consumer base, and their economic awakening is disrupting business, politics and society in general.

It is in the DNA of this generation’s behaviors that we can perhaps most clearly glimpse the future. Who are the world’s approximately 2 billion millennials, so called because they came of age early in the new millennium? What are some of their key challenges, their unique and not-so-unique characteristics? And how should those who are not of this generation judge their likely contribution to the future?

Defining Characteristics

The term millennials is credited to authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, who coined the moniker in 1987. Since then the term has been much used and abused. As with all demographic determinations, it’s arbitrary, but Pew Research defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996. By any definition, we’re not talking about very young people anymore but rather those who, in 2019, are between 23 and 38 years old.

Much commentary has overstated, oversimplified or misinterpreted millennial traits and often overlooks culture as a powerful driver. Further, what millennials have in common with earlier groups—baby boomers (born after the Second World War up to the mid-1960s) and Generation X (born from the mid-1960s to 1980)—can be as informative as what differentiates them.

For example, millennials are often perceived as lazy, technologically bound and untrusting. However, a 2017 study found that they were not lazier in the workplace, were no more likely than Gen X to access the Internet via a mobile phone, and were no less likely to trust institutions such as corporations and governments.

These types of accusations have been levelled at young people before Millennials and will no doubt be pointed at young people after Millennials.”

Bobby Duffy, Hannah Shrimpton, Michael Clemence, “Millennial Myths and Realities”

While millennials are somewhat less connected to governments and do spend more time online, employers, governments, commentators and indeed the rest of society are mistaken in many of their preconceived ideas. Attempts to lay the blame for any breakdown in trust and engagement at this generation’s door are largely wrongheaded.

Several characteristics that frequently come up in discussions about the millennial generation are worth a closer look as we try to better understand them.

Core Consumers?

Many millennials were coming of age when the financial sledgehammer struck the world in 2008. They’ve grown up in an environment of profound instability and uncertainty. The economic cardiac arrest that shuddered through Western institutions stunted the employment prospects and earning power of this demographic at a critical time in their development. Some were affected by job loss or were unable to find suitable work after graduating from college, often while facing daunting student-loan debts. American millennials are the most educated generation in the country, yet the traditional goal of achieving material success through hard work has proven elusive.

The financial crisis helps shed light on why much of this generation is slow to develop in the traditional next steps of adulthood: homeownership, marriage and having children. Instead they’re living at home longer and staying in school longer. They’re often blamed for the decline of industries ranging from food service to automotive to real estate—purportedly due to their idiosyncratic tastes.

But a 2018 Federal Reserve study suggests that the issue may well be less to do with how they are choosing to spend their money and far more to do with not having as much to spend. The report notes that millennials have “lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth” than earlier generations did at their age. They would like to buy cars and homes; they just don’t have the wherewithal.

Still, and partly in consequence, they are a massive consumer base for products ranging from shampoo to package holidays, and they place a higher value on experiences than on things. While larger-asset purchases remain out of reach for many, the increasing economic switching-on of the millennial cohort as the most important consumer base in the world is forcing radical and painful change for many corporations. Businesses that built their products with baby boomers in mind are therefore scrambling to retool. Those unable to sell to this demographic will severely limit their potential market share.

In marketing, as in pop culture, Millennials are leading indicators of large-scale changes in future consumer behavior. . . . This generational transition is ushering in the end of consumer marketing as we have long known it.”

Christine Barton, Lara Koslow and Christine Beauchamp, “How Millennials Are Changing the Face of Marketing Forever”

Recognizing the potential for profit, the banking world has been quick to identify an opportunity and hawkish in its speed to react. In the summer of 2018, American bank J.P. Morgan released an online banking platform built with input from millennials and with them in mind. Dubbed “Finn,” the end-to-end mobile banking app rolled out across the United States to a generation that the bank perceives doesn’t need physical branches. In addition to checking- and savings-account functionality, the app offers various services pioneered by personal-finance start-ups.

Such a tool is a reminder that millennials are not simply consumers but also innovators, founders, owners, operators and vendors of businesses that are well positioned to cater to their own age group. Consider, for example, that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (born in 1984) has been on the top-10 list of richest people in the world since 2016.

Tech-Embedded Babies

There’s no doubt that millennials are technologically embedded. They’ve grown up with technology, and social media was a major feature of their digital nursery.

A result is that with corporations jostling to reach them with their advertising, a massive switchover has occurred from television and radio to social media, streaming and podcasts. This is by all accounts a more intensely online generation, but they also have a far more fragmentary approach to brands, meaning that one-size-fits-all brands may struggle to reach them, and that their power as disruptors of business is keeping investors and company directors awake at night.

But what about this wired generation’s perceived obsession with video games? Certainly it’s true that video gaming is popular with the younger end of society, including both the millennial generation and Gen Z—those born between 1997 and 2012. A Pew survey found that 60 percent of Americans age 18–29 play video games “often” via “computer, TV, game console, or portable device like a cellphone.”

This is not just an American trend. In China, for example, the video-game market reportedly grew by 5.2 percent in the first half of 2018. Mobile gaming constituted more than 60 percent of total game sales in that nation, making it the primary driver of growth for the largest gaming market on earth. In the United Kingdom, digital games accounted for 41 percent of total entertainment sales in 2018, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association.

More than a third of gamers would quit their jobs if they could support themselves as professional gamers. 57 percent of male gamers age 18–35 would like to pursue a professional gaming career.”

Although there’s a strong connection between millennials and video games, faulty judgments abound. For example, sophisticated marketing has been effective in specifically tailoring campaigns to this demographic, yet the Pew survey found that while “young men make up a disproportionately large share” of gamers, “four-in-ten women and roughly a quarter of Americans ages 65 and older also say they play video games at least sometimes.” In addition, “53 percent of those ages 30 to 49 say they play video games often or sometimes.”

The survey also made it clear that, contrary to research suggesting that “playing video games is associated with a decline in work hours among younger men, . . . adults who work full- or part-time are about as likely as those who are unemployed and looking for work to say they play (47 percent vs 43 percent).”

Cultural Drivers

To understand this generation’s importance to the future, it helps to know where the majority of them are and who they are. You’ll find most millennials in emerging markets, simply because the world’s developing nations generally have a much younger demographic profile. This is significant, because cultural shifts outweigh simple generational differences, and cultural shifts in these regions are likely to affect Western millennials in significant ways.

According to UN population estimates for 2015, 36 percent of the world’s adult population are millennials, but in Africa it’s an astonishing 49 percent. The Financial Times reported that “forty three per cent of US millennials are non-white, and millennials in Asia vastly outnumber those in Europe and the US. Despite China’s former one-child policy, it has 400m millennials, more than five times the US figure (and more than the entire US population).”

While Western millennials have experienced a financial inhibitor by virtue of when in history they were born, their counterparts in emerging markets are able to access greater relative wealth and opportunity. As standards of living rise, they are therefore more likely than their forebears to be optimistic. In China, for example, the millennial generation is distinctly optimistic, descending from a baby-boomer generation that lived through the horrors of Maoism.

Perceived attitudes to religion are also worth a closer look. While the prevailing idea may be that millennials are simply irreligious, affiliation is highly influenced by culture. Distinguishing between those who profess to be Christian and those who are practicing Christians, for example, is key. And while millennials in the UK may be less religious than in some other countries, they are in line with an entire nation that more widely repudiates religion. Still, even in America, a far more religious culture, polls indicate that millennials are less likely than older generations to say religion is very important to them.

As the value placed on religion declines in Europe and the West (for all age groups), other regions are seeing it boom. Pew’s projections estimate that Christians will still comprise 31 percent of the global population in 2050. But this is largely because regions such as China and Africa continue to see growth in the number of Christians. Meanwhile the global Muslim population, which was 23 percent in 2010, is projected to reach 30 percent by 2050. As already noted, millennials make up a disproportionately large percentage of the population in some of these regions, so much of the growth in religious interest can be expected to come from that sector.

Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion—though increasing in countries such as the United States and France—will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050”

Defining the Future

For those millennials who have been held back by financial pressures, who struggle to trust individuals, who engage less with government, and who have a sense of not being able to change their lot, the system may feel like it’s failing them. José Ángel Gurria, Secretary-General of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, told The Guardian in 2014, “Nothing is more politically explosive, more dangerous and more destabilising than having a whole generation of frustrated young people. . . . What would be tragic is if the very trait that we count on the young to infuse into our societies—optimism—were to somehow become permanently scarred. We cannot afford that.”

Mental well-being can be difficult to measure, though millennials in nations such as the United Kingdom, United States, India and Australia are increasingly reporting a “quarter-life crisis.” It’s typically characterized as a period of loneliness, insecurity, anxiety and doubt, or of stress and intense soul-searching, and it often hits people in their mid-20s to mid-30s. A 2017 LinkedIn study found that 75 percent of the thousands of young people surveyed had experienced a quarter-life crisis.

Some may scoff at this idea, but there’s evidence that it is indeed a medical reality. A 2018 Cigna survey of 20,000 American adults found that young people were the most lonely, with millennials second only to the younger Gen Z. A UK study likewise found that, contrary to popular belief, older people are not necessarily more likely to be lonely than younger people.

Being lonely doesn’t have to equate to a mental-health issue, of course, just as being alone doesn’t have to equate to loneliness. However, studies suggest a strong link between mental health and loneliness, and younger generations are therefore quite vulnerable to mental-health decline. According to a study published in Psychological Medicine, lonely millennials have double the risk of developing such mental-health problems as depression and anxiety compared to those who are connected to others.

The burden of loneliness may undermine young people’s confidence in their employment prospects or lead them to adopt maladaptive coping strategies and behaviours detrimental to later health.”

Timothy Matthews et al., “Lonely Young Adults in Modern Britain,” Psychological Medicine

While many are quick to cite social media and gaming as driving this trend, experts suggest the truth will be more nuanced, impacted by what young people are engaging with and the way in which they’re doing it. Online time used for connecting with others can be a good way to make friends and maintain contact. However, if online time is spent scrolling through content in a way that is detached and spawns feelings of jealousy for what others are doing, then this is likely to compound a sense of loneliness and isolation. Some also point to the contagious nature of loneliness, whereby an isolated generation interacting with similarly lonely peers may actually cultivate a vicious cycle.

The economic desert that millennials were forced to traverse after 2008 has only ratcheted up the strain they’re under. To attain what previous generations took for granted, millennials are facing unique pressure when it comes to career success. In many nations, the cohort must confront steep saving targets in hopes of redeeming a modest annual retirement income, while the age of retirement is rising. And because many cannot afford to buy a home, they have little choice but to continue renting; this can lead to a greater sense of detachment from the community.

Further, the need to find a good job can appear as important as the quest to find a good mate. Whereas older generations may have defined themselves by religious affiliation, career now stands to replace religion for generating a sense of self, at least in the more developed Western world.

It seems increasingly clear that the mental strain this generation is struggling with has been fostered in part by older generations. Rather than helping or empathizing, a prevalent approach has been to misjudge them and heckle them with negative commentary as part of a culture of blame.

Looking in detail at the legacy that millennials have been gifted, such misjudgment may have serious implications for the future of all. This is a cohort who haven’t been listened to on issues such as the environment, the climate, and social and economic inequities—not least the crushing national debt being bequeathed to them in many countries. The logical conclusion may well be that “the older generation doesn’t care about us, so why should we care about preserving it or its institutions, which are failing us?”

Politically, American millennials tend toward the left, traditionally voting predominantly Democrat (though they don’t typically turn out in force to vote). But the millennial view of liberal democracy is notable. Research published in The Journal of Democracy by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk drew attention to American dissatisfaction with the democratic system. They reported that 72 percent of those born before World War II believe it’s “essential” to live in a democracy, whereas the proportion among millennials stands at around 30 percent. A similar trend appears to be emerging in other major Western democracies.

Millennials in countries like Great Britain or the United States . . . barely experienced the Cold War and may not even know anybody who fought fascism.”

Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy

This may prove to be the most significant game changer for determining the future state of the world. Its seriousness is heightened by the recent rise in dictatorships, right-wing parties and populist governments across the globe.

In the United Kingdom, following the referendum that concluded with a slim majority indicating they wanted to leave the European Union, the polling group Ipsos MORI estimated that 60 percent of Britons aged 25 to 34 wanted to stay. With the passage of time, this generation may increasingly feel aggrieved with older generations, who voted “Leave” in sufficient numbers to determine the future of their younger compatriots.

It appears, then, that millennials are being locked out of the benefits of the system while being castigated for failing that same system. Could the disillusionment of this demographic begin to resemble that of past revolutionaries in France and Russia? The comparison is perhaps not so farfetched. Millennials tend to be well represented at revolutionary events outside the political mainstream. Their sense of having been dealt a bad hand suggests a moral duty to stand up against oppression and injustice.

A Legacy for the Future

We live in a deeply skeptical age, one where all truth is judged to be relative. Even so, we would be well advised not to misjudge an entire generation based on questionable “facts.” Every generation faces challenges, of course, and personal responsibility transcends generational demographics. Every generation throughout history has struggled and generally failed to arrest the negative displays of their own human nature. Exploiting each other, greedily pursuing selfish ambitions and seeking to get the best for self has characterized human history. It seems clear, though, that taken as a cohort the millennials face an uphill battle.

Obviously not all see themselves as having a bad deal, and the challenges they face vary around the world. Still, the sense of plight that consistently bubbles to the surface for this generation remains real. The danger is that maligning them and at the same time denying them access to the social and economic opportunities that other generations took for granted could converge with their increasing economic and political mobilization. This may prove a heady cocktail when blended with loneliness, disenfranchisement and, ultimately, anger. Politically, this largest demographic on earth may be ripe for the taking for those who appear to have the answers that a disenfranchised cohort want to hear.

The duty of the older is to leave a legacy for the younger. What has been our legacy for this generation? Put another way, what has been the collective influence of previous generations on the future of the world?

How well we have prepared those to whom we bequeath custodianship of the earth will form an important part of how we ourselves are judged. How accurately we judge them also becomes very important. We owe millennials—and our collective future—an appropriate duty of care to make up for past failings, working to properly understand, nurture and engage with this generation of no-longer-so-young people.