They’re known for bouncing around jobs, delaying marriage and holing up in their parents’ basements. Dubbed recently as the “children of the Great Recession” by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, millennials are the best educated and most diverse population of young people in U.S. history. They are also perhaps the most coddled, some would say spoiled. As they emerge this year as the United States’ largest demographic group—some 75 million strong—millennials are taking up the mantle as the most impactful generation since the baby boomers.
Their influence has started slowly, due largely to the economic instability that has left many struggling to find good-paying jobs and saddled with staggering student loan debt. But millennials—adults under 35—are certain to shape the economy for decades to come. And their coming of age in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has bred distinct traits that could pose special challenges for the nation’s future growth and prosperity. For starters, millennials are not big spenders, at least not in the traditional sense.
Instead of material wealth, millennials show off through their travels, hobbies and even meals, which get photographed and posted on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.
Such priorities may well give Ardis and his fellow millennials a more fulfilling, well-balanced life than, say, workaholic boomers. But that may not be great for a U.S. economy driven by consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of the nation’s gross domestic product. Young Americans are unusually optimistic, which could propel purchases—and economic growth—as their disposable income increases. But they’re still not likely to have as much left over because so much is going to skyrocketing rents and education expenses.
The low home-buying rate of young adults already has been a big factor in the slow housing market. The homeownership rate for those under 35 slipped to a low of 34 percent this year, compared with around 40 percent for young adults in the prior three decades. And people today are getting married and having children later, which will weigh on home sales in the future. Like other millennials, Summer Lollie is keenly interested in having her own place. She wants something close to her parents’ two-story, four-bedroom house in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite where she grew up and currently lives, she says. But the 27-year-old community organizer can’t imagine how she will be able to save up for a down payment and afford a mortgage.
While Lollie’s parents never finished college, she graduated from Washington and Lee University, a well-regarded school in Lexington, Va. But with more than $35,000 in student debt and a car loan to boot, she has struggled to make ends meet. She moved back with Mom and Dad in April 2015, paying a little rent to them. There’s more than economics behind the living-at-home phenomenon, however. Lollie doesn’t mind the arrangement at all because she likes being with her parents—something more common among millennials than people of their age in previous generations. Experts think that reflects their protective upbringing and more frequent exchanges, thanks in part to the rise of texting and social media. “I have loving parents here,” Lollie said.
Another key difference with their predecessors, particularly Generation X, is that millennials are not big risk takers. That seems especially true when it comes to starting businesses. The rate of new startups is higher today than 10 or 20 years ago for every major age group—except those between 20 and 34 years old. The result is that the composition of new business formation, already turning grayer with the aging of baby boomers, has shifted even more sharply to older adults in recent years. Two decades ago, a little more than 34 percent of all new entrepreneurs in the U.S. were younger than 34 years old. Today it’s just 25 percent.
Startups represent dynamism in the economy. New and young businesses have long created the bulk of new jobs in America, and are critical for productivity growth, too. Some would-be entrepreneurs are being held back by their heavy student debt load. Nonetheless, it’s puzzling that there seems to be relatively less entrepreneurial zeal among millennials, particularly since they grew up in an era when people like Facebook founder and millennial Mark Zuckerberg, 32, have been celebrated in business schools and popular culture. In fact, however, there’s evidence that young adults today would rather work for big companies than take their chances at budding firms or in their own garages. Compared to boomers, millennials are more interested in having the same job through most of their life.
Their relative risk-aversion may have something to do with the protective environment that parents and schools created for millennials, emphasizing participation over winning. Partly because of such pampering, millennials are more self-absorbed than prior generations, even narcissistic. But at the same time, research suggests that young adults today are also very community-minded. If baby boomers were known as the “me” generation, millennials might be called the “we” generation.