One of the questions we’ve been asked most often over the last year by clients, journalists and commentators is “What do you have on Millennial attitudes and behaviours?”
It is completely understandable that Millennials are attracting this sort of attention. They’re a big cohort of young people (usually defined as those born between 1980 and c.1995), moving towards their most economically powerful phase, whose tastes and preferences are, in many cases, still forming and will set the agenda for business for years to come.
They also still have that sheen of the new. The reality, of course, is that they’re no longer all that spry, with the oldest now around 36. We’ve been mapping their progress for many years as part of our Generations study, and it’s been hugely valuable in understanding what really is different, and what’s not. While all generational boundaries are by their nature arbitrary, there definitely is something distinct about this cohort, driven mainly by the economic and technological context they’ve grown up in.
But they are also the most carelessly described group we’ve ever looked at! Myths and misunderstandings abound, with bad research jumping to general conclusions based on shallow caricatures about a group that makes up 27% of the global population.
As just one example, we can look to one of the most famous financial investment and analysis houses in the world (that we won’t name here). In their widely referenced Millennials report they say: “For Millennials, wellness is a daily active pursuit … ‘healthy’ doesn’t mean just ‘not sick’. It’s a daily commitment to eating right and exercising”.
Leaving aside the gross generalisation for a minute, the evidence they give for this is that the Millennials in their survey are more likely to pick out ‘eating well’ and ‘exercising’ from a predefined list of possible definitions of ‘healthy’, where the other options are ‘not falling sick’ and being the ‘right weight’.
Of course Millennials will focus more on eating and exercise, because both illness and weight increase with age! What this research is measuring is a ‘lifecycle effect’ (related to our age or life stage), not a ‘cohort effect’ (something distinct about a generation that they’ll take with them).
It may seem mean-spirited to pick on this research, particularly when there are a lot of similarly poor examples – but it’s dangerous: this sort of blithe conclusion can lead to bad decisions.
To help see through this fug of half-facts we’re producing a report on Millennial Myths and Realities, for release early in 2017.
Let’s try a ‘Millennial Myth or Reality’ quiz based on a very small selection of the things we’ll cover.
Myth or reality? Millennials are more likely to be a healthy weight than previous generations were at the same age.
This seems credible: there is much more information about healthy eating and exercise, many more options, gyms, diet foods and support. You might also expect that the widely discussed narcissism of the current generation of young, driven by social media, could encourage a greater focus on being and looking healthy.
But, given the discussion above, you are probably not surprised that this is a myth. Our new analysis of long-term trend data shows that when they were at an average age of 26, 53% of Generation X in England were a healthy weight. It’s dipped to 48% for Millennials now they’ve reached that same average age.
So the assertion that eating well and exercising is a ‘daily active pursuit’ rings a bit hollow. But you can see why a simple review of the data could lead you to the wrong conclusions. If you didn’t control for age and just compared Gen X and Millennials at their current ages, Millennials would be much more likely to be a healthy weight – purely because they are younger! Gen X have given up their gaunt, interesting, Trainspotting ways and piled on the pounds, as all generations do.
The implications for business and government are clear: there are definitely sub-trends towards a greater focus on health and wellness among the young, and you can be aware of those without ascribing them to a whole generation. But the counter-trend of an ‘obesity epidemic’ is stronger at a generational level, with all the challenges that brings.
Myth or reality? Millennials shift jobs much more often than previous generations, either through lack of loyalty or because of the burgeoning ‘gig economy’.
This is pretty much a myth too, as the chart overleaf based on US data shows. The average job tenure of under 35s has hardly changed since 1983. In fact, over the same period, older groups have started moving jobs much more often, with average job tenures down significantly for these cohorts.
High profile discussions of gig work or McJobs for young people hide a much more important counter-trend: the economy is in a bad way, and when people get work (particularly at the start of their career), they actually try to hang on to it.
So employers beware, don’t believe the hype of Millennial flightiness – if you have a retention problem in junior and middle grades, look to yourself rather than blaming disloyal Millennials.
Myth or reality? Millennials are more likely to be living at home and less likely to own their own home than previous generations.
This is emphatically a reality, with a seismic shift in household formation and tenure in the space of a generation – and it’s not just a British disease, elements of it are also seen in the US and other countries. In the UK, when Gen X were an average age of 27 (back in 1998), 55% owned their own home – but this has plummeted to 32% for Millennials now they are the same age, and as the chart shows,
In the US, when Gen X were an average age of 27, just 18% were still living with their parents – but now 31% of US Millennials are stuck with Mom and Dad.
This has huge implications for business and government: what products people buy, what services they use, what support they need are so tied up with how they live.
Properly understanding Millennials may seem a bit old hat now: we’re starting to get more usable data on Gen Z, and they are forming their own characteristics that we’ll all need to react to. But Millennial power is growing, and this fascinating cohort, who saw so much change as they hit adulthood, deserves better analysis than is often seen. We hope to fill at least some of that gap in early 2017.