Editor’s Note (December 21, 2017): Through to the end of the year, BBC Capital is bringing back some of your favourite stories from 2017.
I know the ultimate millennial. She owns a bicycle in lieu of a car, goes to yoga class at least twice a week, grows her own bean sprouts and works side-gigs instead of for a full-time employer – she left a budding career as an economist to pursue her dream of being a comedian.
The problem is, she's not a millennial. She’s a baby boomer in her late 50s.
Millennials are the generation that’s fun to hate
It’s true that each generation is shaped by demographics, historic events and economic forces. Like, of course, the Great Recession: worldwide, young adults now earn up to 20% below their average compatriot; 30 years ago, they earned more. Or education trends: in the US, Gen Y is more likely to have gone to university – but, as the cost of education has skyrocketed, also to be in massive student debt.
But when it comes to millennials, these analyses often go haywire. Before we know it, we’re not talking about how certain trends are squeezing all of society – and some groups in different ways than others. We’re talking about how millennials are lazy, entitled and really just need to work harder. (Even though, confusingly, they’re also workaholics).
A symbol of generational ennui – or simply some plants to make the sunroom more lively? (Credit: Alamy)
Millennials – defined as those born between 1980 and either the mid- to late 1990s – are the generation that’s fun to hate. And whether it’s a silly trend piece about doorbells or a “generation snowflake” take-down that’s a bit more vicious, there’s often a pattern to the articles written about them.
Step one: take bad data (or no data at all). Forget that what data you can find usually looks at today’s younger cohort in isolation, rather than comparing them to older generations when they were the same age. Step two: ignore – or play down – external factors and demographic changes that may have influenced any differences found. Step three: layer on stereotypes. Step four: wring hands.
For example, are millennials really buying houseplants more than older generations? Even if so, are they really buying more than their grandparents did when they were young and setting up their own households? And if urbanisation is a factor, which the article nods to, could it be because people have fewer outdoor gardens in cities, so plants need to come indoors? Or is it really that millennials living in cities feel rootless, have voids in their hearts and “need something to nurture”?
We think we know a lot about millennials, and about how different they are from any other generation. The problem is a lot of that knowledge is a little off
The trend stories are one thing. (And we’ve all fallen prey to them). But they’re the most harmless thread of a blanket of criticism and concern about Generation Y that extends from the US to Australia to even millennials themselves. According to the theory, people born between 1980 and 1995 may be smart (except when they’re stupid) and digital-minded (except when they’re not). But they’re also killing every industry from diamonds to napkins, wrecking religion and university campuses, ruining the economy in Japan, destroying America and maybe even destabilising China. That’s not to mention how much they’re annoying… everyone.
Result: we think we know a lot about millennials, and about how different they are from any other generation, ever. And those things we think we know about them are so terrible, we hate them for it.
The problem is a lot of that knowledge is a little off.
Many of the stereotypes, and studies, come out of the US, where millennials now make up the largest living generation. (In Europe, on the other hand, they are a minority of all adults). Even within the US, the image of a typical millennial is taken from a narrow slice of the population: think of how Lena Dunham’s show Girls was held up as a send-up of general Generation Y tendencies – despite its narrow portrait of privileged, aimless and almost all white Brooklyn transplants.
A group of empowered Gen Y cyclists who have cast aside the shackles of car ownership, killing the auto industry in the process (Credit: Alamy)
But even within the US, where huge research firms like Pew and Gallup often indulge intergenerational fascinations, there’s more to the data than it seems at first glance. Take living arrangements. In the US in 2014, for the first time in 130 years, it became more common for those aged 18-34 to live with their parents than with a spouse or romantic partner. Jobless, lazy, entitled – the statistics fit the stereotype.
US millennials aren’t actually living with their parents in record numbers. Interestingly, that peak happened in 1940
But as the data shows, US millennials aren’t actually living with their parents in record numbers. Interestingly, that peak happened in 1940. (Those young people would have been members of what Americans now call the Greatest Generation). And while the economy is a factor, three out of four of those who live with their parents today aren’t “idle”: they have jobs or are in higher education.
The real change? Millennials are marrying later than their parents or grandparents – a trend which has been rising in the US since 1970, and which is shared by nearly every OECD partner state from Iceland to Korea. But it isn’t just marriage. While they are cohabiting more, millennials still are less likely to live with a romantic partner, married or unmarried, than were previous generations.
And although it’s tempting to infer an interpretation about commitment levels in that data (or to write a headline like, “Young Americans are killing marriage”), let’s not forget in the US it is baby boomers who not only have higher current rates of divorce than any other age group right now, but who also got divorced in unprecedented numbers when they were in their 20s and 30s.
Maybe many of the characteristics we like ascribing to millennials aren’t unique to this generation. Maybe they’re specific to young people of any generation
Remaining single isn’t the only demographic shift that’s changing how people live in the US. Another is the rising Asian and Hispanic population, which is more likely to live in multigenerational households. In fact, “Adjusted for demographic shifts, the share of young adults living in their parents’ home was actually lower in 2015 than in the pre-bubble years of the late 1990s. In other words, young people today are less likely to live with their parents than young people with the same demographics 20 years ago were,” writes economist Jed Kolko.
A generation known for being workshy but also, confusingly, addicted to work (Credit: Getty Images)
The youth of today
Maybe many of the characteristics we like ascribing to millennials aren’t unique to this generation. Maybe they’re specific to young people of any generation. If only there was some way to see what older people had written about young people throughout the years.
Fortunately, of course, there is. As the Atlantic put it a couple of years ago, “Every Every Every Generation Has Been the Me Me Me Generation”. It’s such a favourite trope, we’re even running out of different permutations of generation nicknames. The baby boomers were “the ‘me’ generation”. Millennials? “Generation Me”.
Older people have been criticising younger people for all of recorded history – and many of these decades-old concerns exactly match the same raised today
But The Atlantic story barely scratches the surface. Unsurprisingly, older people have been criticising younger people for all of recorded history. More surprising – at least to me – was that many of these decades-old concerns exactly match the same raised today.
“These were the special children of perfect parents, and they’ve had very little practice in dealing with failure or rejection,” US author Susan Littwin told the Toronto Star. “But fate has taken these bright charming middle-class aristocrats and dumped them into a rude, tight-fisted world. They tried independence, it didn’t work, and that sapped their confidence and sent them home crying.”
Sounds just like millennial snowflakes, alright… except that she was speaking in 1989 and the generation she was describing was Gen X (or, as the headline calls them, “The no-name generation group born in the 60s”).
There were so many examples like this, we’ve compiled a list of just a few here.
The trend goes all the way back to the ancient world. Romans in their 20s and 30s were often written about negatively – and older Romans were the ones usually doing the writing, suggest the authors of Youth in the Roman Empire. But it went beyond criticism. “There was a great reluctance to entrust honourable offices and liturgies to young people – even greater than to do so to women, who were strictly forbidden by law to hold any office whatsoever but who nonetheless quite often served”, the historians write.
Even the Ancient Romans loved to have a crack at the youth of their day (Credit: Getty Images)
So, what about these much-maligned millennials? (Of which I am, of course, one. After all, I’m clearly oversensitive, and I do like a houseplant!). Are any of their characteristics really generation-related, not age-induced?
One way to tell is to find out whether these characteristics remain the same as millennials age. Now that the older end of Generation Y is setting up camp in their mid-30s, millennials are… acting a lot like previous generations did.
It's true they’re having families later than in the past – a trend that in many countries has been going on for decades (in the US, for example, since 1976). Though US millennials are still less likely to own a home than previous generations at the same age (partly due to both the rising cost of homes and tougher lending standards), they became the largest single group of homebuyers this year. They’re also moving to the suburbs. They’re buying cars. And they’re saving more money for retirement than their Gen X or baby boomer counterparts – even though they have less money to play with.
We change so much that there is very little correlation at all between 77-year-olds and their teenaged selves
If you’re wondering how those kombucha-swigging, selfie-obsessed millennials could have suddenly turned into responsible matriarchs and patriarchs, remember: people don’t just change as we get older. We change so much that, according to one recent long-term study, there is very little correlation at all between 77-year-olds and their teenaged selves.
But sometimes, of course, it’s not that millennials are maturing. It’s that the evidence wasn’t so solid to begin with. After all, if you want to focus on millennial trends, you need to get them from studies that compare millennials to other generations – best of all, to other generations when they were the same age.
Here are some of what those types of studies have unearthed:
Those spoiled youngsters are actually… not well-off. In the UK, millennials earned £8,000 less in their 20s than did Gen X. In Australia, households aged between 65 and 74 years old are $200,000 wealthier than their counterparts eight years ago, while households for those aged 25 to 34 actually went backwards in terms of real wealth.
Kombucha: a fermented tea and, apparently, a drink popular with lazy, self-absorbed millennials (Credit: Getty Images)
All three countries fear that millennials will be the first generation to be worse off than their parents – and they aren’t the only ones.
Despite the gig economy (and recession), as we’ve written about before, millennials are actually job-hopping less than their elders – and less than their elders did at the same age. In the UK, workers born in the mid-1980s changed jobs at less than half the rate of those born in the mid-70s at the same age. In the US, millennials are no more likely to job-hop than Gen X did at the same age; if anything, they stay with their employers longer.
When they do change their jobs, an international survey found they do so for the same pragmatic reasons – like making more money or having more responsibility – as Gen Xers and baby boomers. Only one in five millennials (21%) said they’d leave to follow their passion, more than baby boomers (16%) but less than Gen Xers (24%).
US millennials are less likely to take their allotted leave days than their elders (even though, being more junior, they get the least time off).
In the US, Gen Y are even more satisfied with aspects of the workplace – like their training and skills development, or opportunities for promotion – than other generations.
Around the world, millennials are more likely to take a manager’s direction: one study of 25,000 people across 22 countries found that 30% of baby boomers and 30% of Gen Xers agreed that “employees should do what their manager tells them, even when they can’t see the reason for it,” compared to 41% of millennials.
Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in the HBO series Girls (Credit: AF Archive/ Alamy)
As for needing pats on the back, less than one-third of millennials in IBM’s global survey put “recognises my accomplishments” as one of the top three attributes they prefer in a boss. That slightly edged Gen X (26%) and baby boomers (23%). But baby boomers were as likely as millennials to want hands-on guidance and feedback, and they were more likely than millennials to want a manager who asks for their input.
An analysis of more than 20 studies on the topic worldwide has found that ‘meaningful differences probably do not exist’ in the workplace
Meanwhile, an analysis of more than 20 studies on the topic worldwide has found that "meaningful differences probably do not exist" in the workplace.
That being said, are there ways in which millennials are different than other generations? Of course. This infographic of generations in the US suggests each generation has been becoming more metropolitan, better educated and more ethnically diverse, and less likely to be married or to have served in the military, than the last. Other notable findings have been that millennials are having less sex than did their elders at their age; around the world, they have a more global outlook; they’re less likely to participate in organised religion and more likely to live with their partner. But even some of these trends aren’t unique to millennials. Take cohabitation: the number of cohabiting adults over 50 in the US has risen 75% in the last decade.
So basically, millennials are the same as other generations were at their age. Only a little different. More global, maybe. More diverse. More progressive. Definitely poorer. But a unique group of monsters, the entitled wrath of which the world has ever seen before? I’m not so sure. But I’ll get back to you after I’ve taken a few more selfies.
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