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Think You Know Millennials? Think Again.

October 22, 2021


Think You Know Millennials? Think Again.

Marketers have to know their customers. That means we have to understand generalities around the different generations to effectively connect. For example, Gen Xers have a different sense of humour or different triggers for humour than Baby Boomers. To connect we need to ensure that we speak to their sensibilities. And when we want to market to Gen Z, we have to “get” them.

Sometimes, though, we end up a little bit out of touch—we can get it wrong. A lot of our generational “data” ends up coming to us from stereotypes and media headlines. That can leave us feeling like we “know” Boomers or Gen Xers when we actually have zero clue.

Millennials are probably the best example we have of this right now. So many of us think we know exactly what Millennials are like. They’re the generation between Gen X and Gen Z. People tend to think of them as a bit entitled, a bit frivolous. After all, they’re the ones who invented the selfie. They love Millennial pink, rose wine, and avocado toast.

But while most of us think of Millennials as carefree 20-somethings, the actual picture has evolved a lot.

The Oldest Millennials Are Middle-Aged

The first thing Marketers need to update is their concept of who Millennials are. Depending on who you ask, Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. (These dates change a little bit. Statistics Canada, for example, uses different criteria than the US-based Pew Research Center.)

That means the oldest Millennials turned 40 this year. They’re at least 10 years removed from being a 20-something! Yet a lot of us still use “Millennial” to refer to the 20-something demographic. That age group is now a mix of Millennials and Gen Zers—and Zoomers will take over in the coming years.

The youngest Millennials are, of course, still in their 20s—they’re about 25 or so. Yet that means the typical Millennial is now finished postsecondary education and is in the workforce. The 40-year-old Millennial, in fact, has achieved all the markers of adulthood. They own a house and they’re having kids.

Divides Between Elder and Younger Millennials

There’s more than an “age gap” between the oldest Millennials and younger Millennials just hitting their quarter-life crisis. There’s also a huge divide in experience. As a result, those born in the early 1980s often feel they have more in common with Gen Xers.

Technology plays an enormous role here. While Gen X was the last truly analog generation, elder Millennials grew up in a largely analog world. Younger Millennials were born into a world that was already reshaped by the Internet. Elder Millennials “straddle” the divide between digital and analog. Younger Millennials are closer to the “digital natives” of Gen Z.

Technology isn’t the only factor at work here either. The Great Recession affected elder and younger Millennials in different ways too. Younger Millennials were entering their teens when the markets crashed in 2008. By contrast, the oldest Millennials had graduated college and were entering the workforce. That had devastating effects on the financial future of elder Millennials. Younger Millennials were somewhat shielded from the worst of it.

The Wealth Decline

There’s no question the Great Recession hurt the financial outlook for almost every generation. It hit older Millennials harder, though, because they had yet to build any wealth. Many had student loans, and they graduated into an unstable job market. Gen X and Baby Boomers had more wealth built up, so they didn’t feel the Recession the same way.

A 2021 study, though, suggested Millennials are now earning about the same as Gen X or Baby Boomers at age 40. What’s changed is the cost of living. The average Millennial head of household earns around $73,000, which is comparable to $72,000 for Baby Boomers at age 40.

That means wages have stagnated. That can be seen in the fact that Millennials typically have more debt and less savings than their predecessors. They’re spending more and saving less—and not because they’re self-absorbed youngsters buying avocado toast for likes on Instagram.

In fact, Millennials’ largest source of debt is homeownership. While that’s comparable to Boomers and Gen X, fewer Millennials own houses. About 62 percent of elder Millennials own a house, while 68 percent and 66 percent of Gen Xers and Boomers owned a house at the same age.

Millennials typically have more debt as well. On average, they’re almost $130,000 in debt, a significant increase from either Gen Xers or Boomers at $94,000 and $112,000 at the same age, respectively. And that figure may continue to increase. Elder Millennials tend to have less student debt than younger Millennials, many of whom have yet to become homeowners.

Between higher costs of living, stagnating wages, and increased debt, Millennials also have less saved. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom: studies show that the oldest Millennials may be catching up. They narrowed the “gap” between themselves and Boomers to 11 percent "behind" in 2021.

Generations Are Fluid

Marketers love the idea of generations because they’re shorthand. If someone was born in a particular year, if they’re around this age now, then they have this sort of sensibility. We know they experienced certain historic events and probably experienced them in particular ways because of their age.

Yet we also have to keep in mind that demographers divide generations over the span of about 15 years. As a result, people at the “start” of the generation have a very different experience from those who are at the “end” of it.

And many “elder” Millennials agree. Some of them like the term “Xennial,” which they feel showcases their affiliation with Gen Xers. They remember a lot of the same things that Gen Xers do. The oldest Millennials were teenagers in the 1990s. The youngest Millennials, by contrast, weren't even in Kindergarten by 2000. Their experiences of “growing up,” like their experiences of the Internet and the Great Recession, are very, very different.

For that reason, we’d do well to remember that “generations” aren’t strict dividing lines. Some Millennials will respond well to marketing that’s adopted a “Gen X” aesthetic. Others will identify more with campaigns we’re aiming at Gen Z.

Millennials, again, may be one of the best examples of this phenomenon. They were born into an analog world that rapidly became digital. Some Millennials remember more of that analog world than others in their demographic. But one thing they tend to have in common as a result of rapid technological change is their ability to adapt. The oldest Millennials remember pay phones, calling cards, and a world without Internet. But they’re also adept at using TikTok and other “new” forms of social media.

That might be why some “elder” Millennials feel they’re generation-less. They don’t belong to Gen X and they aren't Zoomers either. At the same time, many Millennials feel divorced from the identity that demographers, Marketers, and the media have pushed on them. And it’s not always the “frivolous young person” stereotype they’re fighting either. A lot of people characterize Millennials as optimistic. Many elder Millennials are pessimistic or even nihilistic like their Gen X peers.

Life Stages Also Matter

“Generations” tend to shape people’s experience and outlook. Gen X remembers the Cold War world; the majority of Millennials don’t.

Yet we also shouldn’t forget about life stages. Millennials may have different outlooks and experiences, but they’re also still advancing through life. Many are homeowners. Many have children. And that means they have similar concerns and desires as Baby Boomers and Gen Xers before them. Parents are always going to care about giving their kids a “good” upbringing. They’re just going to have different outlooks about what that means and how to do it.

So, sure, we can talk until we’re blue in the face about Millennials or Zoomers. But we also need to remember that these generation markers aren’t the be-all, end-all for Marketers. We need to remember that people age and their needs change over time—even if Millennials still love a glass of rose or want to paint their kitchens Millennial pink.

At the end of the day, we need to dig deeper than the labels slapped on any group of people. There are always going to be people who fall outside those labels, always going to be people who fit some parts of the description but not others.

The best thing we can do is talk to our customers and learn about them. Sure, they might be “Millennials,” but what does that mean to them? How do they see themselves, the world around them?

Knowing that will always be more important, so like always—we have to start with the why!


A little more about me. My goal is to inspire create new consideration or conversation! If you find something interesting, drop a thought or share the article to see what others may feel.

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