I don’t use the “M word” a lot. It’s a gross oversimplification whose connotations can be more detrimental than value-add. Like “feminist” or “vegetarian” or “sagittarius.”
But if we’re all going to insist on talking about Millennials, especially if we all think we want to target them as a group with our products, it’s probably worth understanding how we talk about them.
In short: Millennials didn’t create themselves in a vacuum.
The generation was created like every generation before: through context.
Think about the era in which Millennials’ parents grew up. Baby Boomers enjoyed a pretty glorious era of American history – the world was our oyster, and we were the masters of the universe. Manufacturing was up; consumerism was up; everyone was building up a Pleasantville lifestyle. The message they heard was: work hard, and you’ll be rewarded. And for the most part, that held true. For a while.
But by the time the Millennials came along, a lot of that no longer held true. The start was really jobs: careers were no longer with one company; the world turned out to be a somewhat more fickle oyster.
If you wanted the American Dream, it seemed, you had to get it yourself.
1.) What work isn’t: Millennials don’t expect to work one job for 40 years. Because nobody can anymore.
Millennials didn’t grow up in the same world as Baby Boomers, in the decades following World War II, and they weren’t imprinted with everything that came with that era.
They didn’t grow up where a pretty simple formula promised stability and security, where parents worked the same jobs at the same companies for forty years.
Instead, Millennials grew up with parents who were laid off from them.
Millennials didn’t see their parents get steady promotions and consistent 3% annual raises. They didn’t grow up with a new family car in the driveway every few years or an easy, timelined upgrade to a bigger house.
Instead, Millennials watched their parents come home heavy-hearted after getting laid off – often more than once. They watched, peering between the staircase banister railings late at night, as their parents sat at the kitchen table and talked about finances – not which new car to buy next or when, but how they would pay the mortgage, whether to take out a second one, when they’d have to dip into the 401k, or whether they could afford to send the kids to college (more often than not, as these kids would later learn: they couldn’t. But to keep up with the workforce and changing economy, Millennials knew that, unlike their parents generation, theirs would still have to go.)
Millennials grew up already knowing not to expect to retire from their first job out of college. They also knew not to rely on their company to “take care of them.” They saw firsthand that the world doesn’t work that way anymore.
So world the Millennials grew up in was framed by two goals:
- Figure out a new formula.
- Stay as financially unattached as possible. Because nothing is ever a sure thing.
2.) What work is: Millennials developed an understanding of either a.) making their own way or b.) having no way at all.
This is where you get two primary groups of Millennials.
Some of them are sloughing away, working long weeks (far longer than the 40-hour standard of previous generations.) Piecing things together, trying, experimenting, putting themselves out there. And yeah, expecting something.
And then there are others, of course, who are still living in their parents’ basement. Not all of them, but some. (And I think we’re all okay admitting: there are more of these in Millennials than previous generations.)
The world is a much scarier place than what previous generations inherited.
Millennials understand that success doesn’t come with an easy, prescribed formula. It’s no longer a matter of “keeping your head down” and doing as told. (They saw how that worked out for their parents.) So it’s either a matter of scrounging and fighting and carving one’s own path. Or, frankly, forfeiting.
3.) Finances: Student loans.
Student loans. Baby Boomers, overall, didn’t go to college. If they did, it was done more affordably. Student loan debt wasn’t a reality for them, and it certainly wasn’t a generation-wide epidemic.
On top of that, Baby Boomers enjoyed an expanding economy. They had the formula, the nation was raring to go, and business was booming.
Things have changed, now:
The workforce is largely expected to have a college degree.
But Baby Boomers have largely found themselves not in a position to buy one for their kids. And so the Millennials are filling in that gap on their own. So they enter adulthood – 18 years old – with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars already over their heads.
Only to find that, as mentioned, employment isn’t guaranteed.
4.) Consumerism: why Millennials don’t spend like the Baby Boomers.
First, Millennials don’t have the money (see “student loans.”)
But more importantly, Millennials don’t buy into the beliefs that previous generations were sold on. They don’t “believe in” the value of “lifestyle assets” like cars and mortgages, partly because a.) they’ve seen them deteriorate and partly because b.) the messaging that “American values” were upheld through these objects wasn’t pushed as hard on younger generations as it was on the post-war ones, in a nation that was eager to manufacture and banner our pride.
A word on technology: A “love of technology” isn’t about Millennials. It’s about human nature and our response to technical evolutions. Millennials are not any different than previous generations. Smarts phones are today what TV was during the 50s and 60s, and if the Baby Boomers had had smart phones as teenagers (or had been able to carry their TV around in their pockets), they would’ve been all over that as well.
5.) Why Millennials aren’t buying homes.
Of course Millennials don’t want mortgages.
First: They graduated into a housing crisis. Who would actually still “believe” this asset while coming into adulthood the same time it was falling apart?
Second, though: Millennials effectively already have mortgages. They’re called “student loans,” running up balances into the hundreds of thousands for many people in their 20’s.
Bonus: Millennials didn’t “entitle” themselves.
Every time I hear someone from an older generation scoff at the way Millennials grew up “getting gold stars and ribbons for everything,” I want to point out: well, and which generation was handing them out?