The Evolution of the Millennial – and What the M Word Tells Us about Society Today

Today, it seems EVERYONE is talking about millennials. What we want, what we don’t want, what we buy, what we eat, how we work, how we play (e.g. is it really true we prefer watching Netflix over having sex? Surely not…)

I have a complicated relationship with the M word. When I first started blogging about personal finance eight years ago, nobody was talking about ‘millennials’. Come to think of it, it seemed nobody was talking about young peoples’ finances either (what was I thinking?)

But actually, it turned out there were LOTS of ordinary people who were positively *obsessing* about young people’s future prospects. It just took the media, political class and financial industry about five years to catch up with the real world. Now there’s a surprise…

 

It has become painfully clear that the financial crash of 2008 has created what’s now described as a “crisis cohort”. When I graduated from university in 2009, I saw young people all around me struggling to find jobs, particularly those commensurate with once-valuable degrees, never mind move up the wage ladder. Our specific cohort has been paid 6 per cent less than those who started just before or after the crisis and our wages have taken up to seven years to recover, according to the Resolution Foundation.

And so our financial worries mushroomed. Would we ever afford our own home? Would we ever be able to transition out of debt into saving? How will we cope with the real world if we have to rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad? And how will we cope if we can’t?

We started airing these concerns. In a big way. I started doing it through the medium of blogging, back when it wasn’t even a thing, and others have followed suit. We started making ourselves heard in the workplace, online and in the media. As we came of age, we started buying stuff, and expressing opinions, and even voting! We suddenly became important.

So we needed a convenient name that could be used by companies, politicians, self-help experts (plus the odd controversialist…)

Quick! What about millennial? That’ll do. If you can pop “snowflake”, “entitled” and “avocado brunch” in there, all the better.

And so we return to my mixed feelings about the M word. It was inevitable that, in time, we would attract our own moniker. The cataloguing of vast swathes of society based on age started with the baby boomers, a huge generation born as the country rebuilt itself after the Second World War, though it’s likely that the label only started being used retrospectively in the 1970s in the U.S. Then we moved onto Generation X, a group born between the mid 1950s and the early 1980s, which was named after a 1991 American novel by Douglas Coupland, itself named after Billy Idol’s original punk band, which was in turn named after a book on youth culture published in the States in 1965. You with me?

The M word was then likely to have been coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in the US in 1987 to describe those leaving school around 2000. And yet it has now come to encompass pretty much any human being born between 1982 and 2000 and is the accepted term of reference for roughly 14 million young people in the UK. This makes us an even bigger and possibly more influential generation than the babyboomers (though I would argue that Gen X are the real silent powerbrokers in society right now. But that discussion is for another day…)

You will have noticed a common thread through all these labels: they originated in the U.S. The attacks on September 11 in 2011 are commonly cited as the “defining” moment in millennial lives – as if they wouldn’t be seismic for anyone else.

But what about the developmental gap between someone who was 18 at that time compared to an eight year old, with young Americans also having an inevitably different experience from young Brits? And how about that little financial crash I mentioned…surely that’s about as “defining” as it gets?

You’re hopefully starting to understand why these labels can be (to use that very millennial word) problematic. But hey – I’ve made my peace with the M word. I now accept that we need a shorthand to encapsulate the trends that are particular to young people shaping our future society. And those trends are actually very real – and very interesting.

Proper research strongly suggests we’re (generally) leading healthier lives, we’re less deferent to traditional sources of authority and we hold brands and employers to incredibly high standards on everything, from environmental practices to having a clear sense of ‘purpose’. When it comes to the financial industry, we’re increasingly expecting customer-led products, the option to buy with data (ethically) rather than cash and seamless services right across the board.

Of course, such generalisations can be dangerous, and if I had a pound for every time I receive a ridiculous press release stating what “millennials” are doing…

But however you prefer to describe us, one thing is clear: we’re not just your customers and your employees – we’re increasingly your bosses, your influencers, your politicians and your journalists. And one day, we will likely be your caregivers too, if social care reform continues at its current pace. Dismiss us (and our Netflix addictions) at your peril.

 Iona Bain is the Young Money blog writer, broadcaster and advisor. To book her (or any other speaker) for your event contact JLA here

 

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