Are millennials different?

Each generation branches out in their own ways


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A question that’s started to come to fruition is whether millennials are fundamentally different than other generations or if we’re simply delaying the inevitable trajectory of adulthood when “real life” hits. The answer to this question has far-reaching implications across everything from housing to the economy to how businesses recruit and retain talent.

Early indications comparing generations at the same stage of life lean toward a fundamental difference. Already among millennials we’ve seen an aversion to home ownership — and ownership in general — lower marriage rates, and a new approach to the workplace and employers.

A number of factors could explain why ownership or marriage has been delayed — increased student debt levels, stagnating wage growth and inflated home prices have made these financially prohibitive. Likewise, declining unemployment and a tight labor market have allowed millennials more flexibility in the ways that we go about work and how companies recruit talent to remain competitive.

That said, the argument for a fundamental shift is grounded in the fact that the factors mentioned above are only a component of, not an explanation for, those shifts. I believe that even without financial constraints or more employment options, millennials would still be driving these trends away from the traditional path through adulthood.

On homeownership, much of the price growth has already been captured over the post-recession period of low interest rates and a rising stock market. Should we really expect that housing prices can continue to grow as interest rates rise — making the amount that people can borrow less — or the economy experiences a slow down?

Moreover, there’s the mental baggage that debt holds, and millennials have shown an aversion to debt relative to other generations. Home ownership isn’t the gold standard by which we define ourselves.

When considering marriage, the median age of first marriage has risen to 27 for women and 29 for men, up seven years since 1960, according to the Urban Institute. Some credit the lack of financial stability as a reason for the increasing median age of marriage, but that’s not all. We have more opportunity for mobility than any previous generation, making the idea of tying down to one person and place more difficult, and we believe commitment can be shown in many ways, of which marriage is only one.

Further, in the workplace, we push the envelope on what a work environment should be like. We think that employers should take a side on controversial issues. We use the office as a social outlet and place for connection. We want to get meaning and purpose from what we’re doing day-to-day. As millennials move into management positions, these types of actions will only accelerate.

All of the above represent a new mindset rather than a desire, but current financial inability, to replicate the path of those before us.

What does it mean?

The idealism and independence of the 20s into the 30s isn’t likely to completely fade as millennials continue to mature. Yes, it may eventually make sense for those that are able to purchase a home and settle down with a partner. That said, home purchasing will be for a place to live and not necessarily an expected guaranteed financial gain.

As employers continue to see a shift in what’s expected of a work environment, starting with millennials and continuing with Gen Z, those that maintain flexibility and transparency will attract top talent. Brands that align their supply chain, products and messaging with a values-driven approach will win our dollars, especially as we dig out of the hole of debt and have more spending power in higher-paying jobs.

Each generation will have some overlap with those before them but also will branch out in their own ways. Millennials have chosen transparency, equality and flexibility as the values on which we won’t compromise. So, to answer the question, yes we’re different, but we hope in a way that improves our own lives and those of the people around us.

Jordan Bean, a senior associate at Stax Inc. in Boston, can be reached at jordan@jordanbean.com.

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