The Myth of the Millennial

A recent report by the St Louis Fed announced that the primary difference between millennials and previous generations is that millennials are poorer.  This contradicts conventional wisdom that the cause of millennials being less successful is that the entire generation is incompetent.

If you’re unaware of some of the stereotypes about millennials, here’s a summary:  It’s a well documented reality that those born between 1981 and 1997 (plus or minus a few years depending on your definition) are failing to reach the same metrics of success and maturity as previous generations did at the same point in their lives.  Millennials buy homes less [1], get married less [2], have kids less [3], and live with their parents more [4].  A common assumption (among people who aren’t millennials) is that this is all consistent with this being a generation of screw ups who are lazy and incompetent.  The thinking goes that millennials choose not to hit those milestones of maturity because they’re immature and don’t want to.  This is pretty mind blowing, since the explanation that they want to do those things but can’t makes a lot more sense.  Most of those things are objectively desirable.  No one wants to live with their parents.  People want to form lifelong partnerships.  And owning a house provides stability and security.

To put into perspective how widely held these misconceptions about millennials are, go ahead and click on the sources I used above.  All of them document the things millennials are forgoing, and then claim without evidence that millennials choose to skip that stuff because they’re lazy and immature.  Take the article I linked above documenting how millennials don’t buy homes.  It cites an expert who says, “In my generation, I’m a baby boomer, you bought a home as quickly as you could.  You didn’t take a vacation for years to save for the down payment on your first home.”  While that’s presented as the informed conclusion of a knowledgeable expert, its actually complete bullshit- millennials don’t spend their down payment on a vacation because they’re too poor and stressed out to take them [5].  And that quote is from economist Dr. Laurie Goodman, Vice President of Housing Finance Policy at the Urban Institute.  With people that well respected unwittingly expressing biased, inaccurate opinions like they’re facts, its no wonder that the theory of the lazy millennial is so widespread.

But there has been a growing awareness of the reality of lower incomes driving these trends.  While its probably too little too late to undo the damage that the myth of the lazy millennial has caused, its never too late to start trying to prevent things from getting worse (that’s a lesson millennials are very familiar with on account of climate change).  Bloomberg’s coverage of this recent Fed report sums up the takeaway pretty succinctly in its opening lines:

“Millennials, long presumed to have less interest in the nonstop consumption of goods that underpins the American economy, might not be that different after all, a new study from the Federal Reserve says.

Their spending habits are a lot like the generations that came before them, they just have less money at this point in their lives, the Fed study found. The group born between 1981 and 1997 has fallen behind because many of them came of age during the financial crisis.”


Meanwhile, in December of last year the Wall Street Journal publicly acknowledged their habit of scapegoating millennials, and vowed that they would cover the group more accurately.  While they deserve credit for owning up to the problem and making a change, they also deserve blame for years of promoting stereotypes that have deprived millennials of sympathy and likely stymied the awareness and political will to address financial hardships that affect millions of Americans.  For one of countless examples of how condescending and dismissive their reporting was, check out this story about how companies are adding better support for their products because millennials are too incompetent to do many tasks that were trivial for previous generations:

“The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has started offering gardening lessons for young homeowners that cover basic tips—really, really basic—like making sure sunlight can reach plants.”

“Lawn-mower engine maker Briggs & Stratton Corp. built a professional studio inside its Milwaukee office last year to make how-to videos. Power-tool maker Andreas Stihl AG calls these new consumers “Willie Wannabes,” compared to their elders, who are “Eddie Experts.”


To drive home the fact that this all traces back to a generation that suffered the consequences of mistakes that were made before they arrived, look at the timing of the word millennial catching on.  While the term has existed in obscurity since it was coined in the late 1980’s, Google Trends indicates that interest in the term remained low until around 2012.  If interest in the group began when the oldest millennials entered the world as adults (I’ll be conservative and use the age of 22 instead of 18), that would have happened sometime around 2004.


The fact that the popular notion of millennials didn’t really exist until a couple years after the financial crisis hit suggests that all the traits we associate with millennials are actually just the results of the financial hardship experienced by american’s entering the workforce during the great recession.  Before the great recession our current concept of a millennial didn’t exist, because all the traits we associate with them only appeared after the recession.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to continue looking for a job.




[1]  Here’s why millions of millennials are not homeowners

[3]  Millennials Aren’t Having Kids. Here’s Why That’s A Problem For Baby Boomer Real Estate & Retirement

[4]  It’s Official: The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave

[5]  Here’s Another Study About Why Millennials Are Terrible at Taking Vacation 



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