Type ‘Millennials are…’ into your search bar and responses range from ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’ to ‘generation nice’. They’re a ‘generation of idle trophy kids’, according to the Boston Globe, the ‘Me-Me-Me Generation’, according to Time.
Millennials – or Gen Y, as they’re also called – are aged between 18 and 31 and they are the most talked-about generation since the Baby Boomers. While Gen X seems to have sunk into the mists of the generational divide – cynical and sulking, as Boomers stole their thunder – Millennials are launching a thousand headlines and market research papers. So, who are they really? And why should we care?
BLAME IT ON THE BOOMERS
Firstly, it’s time to quit the Millennial-bashing. There’s no denying that Boomers hold substantive sway on how their Millennial kids turned out. Disillusioned with Depression-era austerity, Boomers adopted a gentler child-rearing style but they also worked more and carried that guilt home.
“The use of child care meant many Boomer parents experienced perpetual guilt for not being there enough,” says Dr. Brendon Dellar, a senior clinical psychologist and director of Midland’s Cygnet Clinic. “They over-indulged to compensate; they weren’t just parents but educators, entertainers, event planners and career advisors.” For the first time in recent history, parents positioned their children as the whole ‘point’ of life – rather than peripheral to it. And, as parenting softened, education systems changed accordingly. In the 80s, the letter F (for ‘fail’) was banished from school reports. Ribbons were no longer solely reserved for the most speedy or scholarly; students were often rewarded simply for rocking up. No wonder Gen Y earned the badge the Trophy Generation.
In a sense, it worked: studies have shown Gen Y-ers exhibit high levels of self-esteem, and enjoy excellent relationships with their parents – they see them as mates, not martinets. The problem? It might have worked just a bit too well. Eleven studies – covering three research methods and four respondent recruitment modes in three countries – show there’s been a generational increase in narcissism. Even incidences of the words ‘me’ and ‘I’ have greatly increased in popular song lyrics. Ouch.
Perth woman Charlie Caruso is the author of Understanding Y, a book that seeks to demystify the eponymous generation. A Millennial herself, 27-year-old Charlie hardly fits the profile of a bludging narcissist. A successful career woman, mother of two and business owner, she’s as sharp as her razor-blonde bob. Understandably, she reckons Millennials don’t deserve their rap.
“In personal life, Baby Boomers more or less get Gen Y, because they’re their children,” she says. “It’s in the workplace we see the intergenerational conflict. Baby Boomers changed industry and made all the rules, and Gen X did everything they could to play by them. Gen Ys are coming in now and disrupting them because they think the rules suck.”
Millennials see that the work-now play-later attitude of the Boomers hasn’t paid off. Their picket fences and fancy cars and stoic work ethic didn’t halt a global financial crisis or major environmental threats like global warming.
“Our parents did the stuff that they needed to do rather than what they wanted to do,” says Millennial Josh Cutler, a 25-year-old musician and management student. “We just do what we want to do. They might see us as spoiled brats but we see that they’re not happy.”
But, then again, it is all relative; the same sentiment might have been voiced verbatim by Boomers 20 years ago. “Our parents were the Depression babies – the dutiful, responsible ones,” says my Boomer mother when I broach the subject with her. “My generation was all about ‘doing your own thing’. We were the radicals, hippies, drop-outs and innovators, not the hard-working drudges.” Careful, Boomers: you may have more in common with your Millennial kids than you’d care to admit.
LIVING IN THE MOMENT
An acronym coined by rapper Drake in 2011 captured an attitude of the times so precisely it quickly entered the Millennial lexicon – and even scored a 2014 entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. YOLO or ‘You Only Live Once’ has become something of a battle cry for Gen Ys.
Dr Dellar reckons the rapid pace of technology – the fact that Millennials have
a world of information and stimulation at their fingertips – is a key YOLO driver. “Due to the speed of technology, Millennials seem to be more restless and do not gravitate towards commitment easily,” he says. “They have a sense that there is more out there, leading to what others would consider a flippant attitude to work, study or relationships.” If your relationship doesn’t work out, just download an app and swipe left or right (here’s looking at you, Tinder). Why keep slogging at that boring degree when you can access university courses the world over from the comfort of your sofa?
“If you’re, say, 30 years old, you matured to adulthood in an age of unfettered prosperity,” says demographer Bernard Salt. “If you grow up in an era in which every year is better than the last, you don’t think you have to plan for the future – because the future is always better.”
The philosophy may also explain why Gen Y is far less likely to believe in God than any preceding generation of twenty-somethings. “It could be a sign of the advance of scientific and rational thought, but it might also be a reflection of the fact that if the here-and-now is so damn good, why would I hold out hope for the hereafter?” says Salt.
So it’s no surprise that Gen Y-ers hold out for jobs that excite them. The phrase ‘follow your passion’ became common only in the 90s. By the 2000s, with Gen Y at its most formative, the line was almost ubiquitous. A study from Australian recruitment firm Hays revealed 64 per cent of Australian Millennials value interesting work – far more than previous generations. If a job isn’t exciting or fun, why bother?
Just ask 27-year-old James Neville, who continues to pour drinks at a Fremantle pub, despite his degrees in finance and geology. “The right job hasn’t come along yet,” he says. “I’m enjoying my lifestyle too much to give it up for a job that isn’t meaningful or enjoyable.”
But later in life, the side effects of YOLO may catch up with Millennials like James, Salt cautions. “There’s this feeling that ‘I don’t really have to take out a mortgage, or plan for the future because everything will work out’,” he says. “The danger is that there may be a period when the Millennial generation has a great realisation that their middle-age will not turn out to be as prosperous and as successful and as happy as they imagined in their youth. They could ultimately be known as the Disappointed Generation.”
PERSONAL BRAND BUILDING
They’re glued to their iPhones and don’t let you eat breakfast until they’ve documented it on Instagram; they talk in acronyms more confusing than Morse code. But this slavish devotion to social media (and penchant for selfies) doesn’t necessarily mean they’re #vapid.
Millennials have an acute awareness that what they post to Instagram, hashtag on Twitter, or like on Facebook sends a public message about who they are – and they’re taking ownership of it.
“Social media lets you act as your own publicist and you can create whatever kind of image of yourself you want,” says Madeleine McGowan, a 21-year-old vlogger (that’s video blogger, for the Luddites), whose most popular videos fetch upwards of 9000 views on YouTube. “You can shroud yourself in a glorious web of lies – or if you’re slightly less corrupt, just emphasise your strong points.” She’s only half-joking. “Our generation has realised that building a personal brand is basically a necessity if you want to be successful in a lot of areas, which isn’t something that our parents have really experienced,” she says. “My mum always tells me my videos need to be less narcissistic but that’s because she doesn’t know what the people want.”
She makes a valid argument: according to the results of a US study that examined the relationship between Millennials, narcissism and social networking, it appears that social networking appeals to narcissists – but it doesn’t create them. In fact, social media’s narcissistic rep most likely comes from older generations who just don’t get the importance of social networking in Millennials’ lives.
“They think it’s all selfies and no substance, but the reality is Millennials use social media to communicate, express themselves and advance their careers,” says Charlie. “Social media is necessary to succeed,” agrees 20-year-old journalism student Sarah Carillon. “It’s the new marketing, PR, and resume.”
So, instead of keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians, as the case may be), Millennials strive to stand out. “For Millennials, uniqueness is the centrepiece of identity,” says Charlie. “This is why they strive to continually shape and reshape identities through social media. They want to customise everything.”
Quirky celebrities like English model Cara Delevingne and Australian rapper Iggy Azaelea, who regularly take to social media to post goofy selfies or offer advice like ‘Be a Fruit Loop in a world full of Cheerios’, have become the poster children for a generation that champions individuality. “Social media gives you a chance to share the unique parts of your personality usually reserved for your best friends and close family,” says Sarah. “It’s made people’s public personalities louder, more defined and multifaceted.”
They have what you might refer to as classic middle-child syndrome: sandwiched between the Boomers and Millennials, Gen X-ers struggled to carve out a unique identity. They have a bit of a rep for being cynical, because they grew up around the 1987 stock market crash and entered the job market amid the economic rationalism of the early 90s. Unlike the Boomers, Gen X struggled to enter a property market that was leveraged by the household-forming Boomers.
Market research indicates Millennials take a long-term view of the environment, shunning luxury goods in favour of locally produced, ethical products. But other stats indicate they might be more full of hot air than a wind farm in summer. For example, a 2012 census study from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed 18-24 year-olds were less concerned than any other age group about environmental problems in general. Focus-group participants also indicated that a particular environmental issue would need to have a direct personal impact in order to register concern.
So how green are they?
Chris Heary, the 30-year-old founder of sustainable growing company New Roots – Your Urban Farmers, thinks studies like the one from ABS misunderstand and misrepresent Millennials’ environmental concerns.
“I think they take environmental issues as a whole – they don’t separate environment from economics,” he says. “In days gone by, the environmental movement focused on individual causes such as save the whales, protect the rainforests or prevent oil spills. The Millennials have inherited the truly global environmental problem of climate change which just can’t be tackled in the same way. It will take global policy that will require a reshaping of the economic landscape.”
It looks like he’s onto something. Studies from the Pew Research group found that although considerably fewer Millennials identified as ‘environmentalists’ than older generations, they were more likely to favour strict environmental laws and environmentally friendly policies than their older counterparts. Plus, many were choosing bikes and buses over cars, and were much more likely than preceding generations to pay more for responsibly made products.
“Once upon a time, an individual would feel helpless to make change, but this notion has been turned on its head by the social connectivity of the internet,” says Chris. “It drives self-empowerment which helps individuals believe they can make a difference. I think this is why Millennials purchase more sustainable goods than any other generation.”
Chris also reckons Millennials’ inclusive view of the environment and the economy has seen an upsurge of businesses in the sustainable sector. “Being a Millennial myself, I created my business to help people and businesses grow food in their own backyards,” he says. “We aim to bring food production back to the urban environment and reconnect people with how food is produced and who is producing it. Doing this will hugely improve environmental and social outcomes – but importantly, the business can also operate to make money and participate in the economy.”
He suggests that this idea of making an environmental difference while also pocketing a profit is a concept that’s met with scepticism from older generations. “I believe that a detachment from authority and the status quo was essential in driving my initiative to start an urban farming business,” he says in typical Millennial fashion. “And I can only see this link between sustainable economics and the Millennial generation strengthening. We will see this from a grass roots perspective with other businesses like mine, as well as through larger corporations changing their practices to incorporate the Millennial way of thinking.”
MORE GLOBAL THAN EVER
Millennials represent the fastest-growing customer segment in the travel industry, with the United Nations estimating they generate over US$180 billion in annual tourism revenue, a whopping 30 per cent increase since 2007. Their findings revealed young people in advanced economies want to keep “travelling despite economic uncertainty”. (There’s that YOLO again).
But how are these footloose and fancy-free Millennials funding their global existence? Simple: by living in their parents’ basements. With an intimidating property market and obliging parents who will provide a nest in between overseas jaunts, postponing careers for globetrotting seems like a no-brainer.
“A lot of my motivation to travel comes from my parents, who left school to work really young, and married and started a family at a young age. They’ve always said to me I should try to travel when I’m young because they never got the chance,” says Josh. “So I took their advice.” He’s recently returned from his fourth overseas trip in as many years, and is living with his parents to recoup the funds.
Amelia Ross, a 24-year-old with a marketing background, has just completed a five-month trip exploring the Americas. Though she’s returning thousands of dollars in debt and with no job lined up, she has no regrets.
“Now’s the time to take risks and see the world. By putting yourself in different contexts you figure out who you really are and what you should be doing. You can always move back in with your parents to earn money back.”
“Travel has become the new status symbol,” says Josh. “It’s not about the car you drive anymore, it’s how many places you’ve visited.”
They’re also disrupting the concept of holidaying, opting for extreme adventures. “Sitting around at a hotel pool just isn’t enough for adrenalin junkie Gen Ys,” says Charlie.
The World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation, which surveyed over 34,000 people from 137 countries, confirmed the Millennial shift away from “traditional sun, sea and sand holidays”. As well as staying in more remote locations, they’re favouring hostels over hotels, and maxing out their travel time; since 2007, there’s been an increase in young travellers heading overseas for longer than two months, with the average trip lasting a lengthy 58 days.
“I had a friend who almost killed himself trekking in Sibera – that’s the equivalent of driving a Rolls Royce for us!” says Josh. “Everyone’s trying to one-up each other, go to that one more extreme place.”
Social media may play a role in this travel one-upmanship: a report by analytics network BazaarVoice revealed 56 per cent of Millennials reported social media posts made by their friends fuelled their wanderlust.
Australian Millennials are particularly global-minded. A study by Hays showed Aussie Gen Ys were considerably more likely to want to work overseas than Gen Ys in the US, Germany and Japan. Two thirds of respondents were interested in international opportunity, with one in five claiming they’d move overseas for work. In an increasingly connected world, we reckon this can only be good news.
World War II stifled birth rates, but when Australian troops demobilised in September 1945, the birth rate boomed exactly nine months later. Members of the new generation tended to grow up in families of four or more, so understood concepts like deference and hierarchy. As young adults in the war, parents of Baby Boomers were frugal, but Boomers, who grew up in a relatively prosperous economy, are consumers: you know, the nice cars and nice houses... Still, they know how to save for a rainy day, and have been putting aside money for retirement for decades. In the past decade or so, Boomers have held senior management positions in the workforce. Still, we can’t forget that they were children of the Age of Aquarius – iconoclastic, idealistic, and challenging of authority and tradition. For example, it’s thanks to Boomers that women are in the workforce at all.
PAYING IT BACK
“If you’ve got this great self-confidence, great education, great worldliness, you don’t really respect authority,” says Salt. “If you speak to any Gen Y in the workforce they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I quite like it here. But what I really want to do is start my own business’. They’re naturally entrepreneurial.”
A report by Hays confirms it: seven out of ten Australian Gen Y respondents already had, or saw themselves having, their own business at some point in their careers.
Partly, it’s that fizzy cocktail of exuberance and education. Partly, it’s the developmental delay – no mortgage, no marriage – which makes it easy to take the risk. And partly, it’s that social media has given anyone the chance to reach a wide network. Jamie Plunkett is a 24-year-old filmmaker, who started his business, Apertunity Productions, with two friends a year ago. He credits social media for giving him the confidence to start his business and for its subsequent growth. “Before the social media explosion, I wouldn’t have known where to begin looking for work,” he says. “But having an online presence, I was confident that if I pushed myself to get work, there would be an audience. In this industry, word of mouth is the most genuine interaction you can have with any potential client – and people are always giving it away online. There will always be a need for larger companies, but as the world gets smaller and smaller I predict a strong rise in those who want to ‘go it alone’.”
“We might be about to yield an entrepreneurial dividend from the years of investment in Generation Y’s education, travel and building of self-esteem,” says Salt. “We’ve been investing in you bloody Gen Ys, stroking your egos and supporting you and putting up with you pissing us off,” he laughs. “But look what you get – this creativity, this boundless energy, this optimism about the future. All that may burst forth and all of these new businesses created out of nowhere with a better product that fits the times. That’s the best case scenario.”
Millennials, we have our fingers crossed.
The children of indulgent Boomers, Millennials grew up in a time of ascendant economic prosperity – which can explain their fearlessness, self-confidence, impatience and penchant for living in the moment. They’re living at home later than any other generation and are delaying other developmental decisions, like getting married, having children and entering the workforce. They’re highly educated, entrepreneurial and global in thinking – and are redefining workplace rules.