Today’s Millennials Will Change Their Tune About Money

Here's the problem with trying to characterize a generation: they grow up

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According to the trend spotters, Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are a generation filled with confident optimism. They have big goals, a determination to balance their work and life, they are accepting of differences and promise to be superior stewards of the planet. A 2010 Pew Research Center poll found, for example, that even in the teeth of the recession, nine in ten Millennials felt they had enough money or would achieve their financial goals in life. Of course, this kind of pulse-taking is always on shaky ground, methodologically speaking. But by late 2011, a survey by consultant PwC found that Millennials are also skeptical that early career sacrifice will pay dividends later on.

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And that’s the problem with trying to characterize a generation: they grow up. Time passes. People change. Just look at the Baby Boomers, to whom the Millennials are so often compared.  They started out as idealists who rejected 1950s materialism, brought down two presidencies and (depending on your line of sight) either ended or prolonged the Vietnam War. But then they turned inward, built McMansions, and decided that “greed is good.” There is no doubt that in 20 years, we’ll look back at the confident predictions about Millennials and realize we didn’t know them at all.

Current events are shaping them as we speak. The generation that supposedly prizes meaningful work, flexibility and balance began their education and careers in the middle of the most frightening recession since the Depression. It left its mark. UCLA’s Cooperative Intuitional Research Program (CIRP) annually polls students entering four-year colleges and universities. Their fall 2012 survey of 193,000 incoming students found that 81 percent– an all-time high – said that “being very well off financially” is a very important personal goal. Except for the fortunate few, being very well off financially is going to mean a work life that often trumps personal life. As generations past know full well: personal life doesn’t pay the bills.

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Even the strong Millennial support for the environment comes with a big qualifier. Their support for a healthier planet stops – just as it does with Boomers – where their environmental passion encounters a higher cost or a change in lifestyle. Even recycling is a challenge. A DDB survey found little difference between the generations in how they see the importance of responsible behavior. In fact, Boomers are significantly more likely to recycle. 

Maturity has an inevitable impact, one that we don’t fully acknowledge. When we look back, we realize how we’ve changed. But when we look ahead, we think we’ll stay the same. Harvard researchers call this phenomenon “the end of history illusion.” Their findings, published in the journal Science earlier this year, revealed that the young, middle aged and elderly all see the present as a “watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”  We don’t realize that age, family, even the very human competitive drive for status all have the power to change who we think we are. No one generation can ban the urge to compare oneself to one’s peers and, when someone else buys a bigger house, drives a nicer car, or gets a bigger job, learn to ignore the hectoring voice that says “They’re leaving you behind.”

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Millennials are young, and their strengths and weaknesses have yet to be road-tested by time and life. They may well turn out to be different from the generation that spawned them, and live more balanced lives and find spiritual happiness in the difference between having what you want and wanting what you have. But we won’t know that for many more decades.