Millennials now make up the largest age cohort in the US workforce, so employers have an interest in understanding the needs, preferences, and concerns of this generation in order to effectively attract, retain, and develop millennial talent. A common belief about millennials is that their consumption patterns and lifestyle choices are markedly different from those of previous generations: living with their parents longer, getting married later or not at all, and buying homes and automobiles at lower rates. A stereotypical view that has thus emerged of millennials is that they are simply choosing not to do the things their older peers expected them to do in their early careers. The growing consensus among observers of the economic data, however, is that the main reason millennials aren’t behaving like their baby boomer and gen-X predecessors is that they are not as well-off as these generations were at the same point in their lives, thanks in large part to having come into the workforce during and after the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
In the past few weeks, two studies have come out that complicate both of these narratives about millennials, but conflict in how they depict this generation’s financial health. The first is a working paper by Federal Reserve Board economists Christopher Kurz, Geng Li, and Daniel J. Vine, titled “Are Millennials Different?” Yes and no, the economists conclude:
Relative to members of earlier generations, millennials are more racially diverse, more educated, and more likely to have deferred marriage; these comparisons are continuations of longer-run trends in the population. Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth. For debt, millennials hold levels similar to those of Generation X and more than those of the baby boomers. Conditional on their age and other factors, millennials do not appear to have preferences for consumption that differ significantly from those of earlier generations. (Emphasis ours.)
In other words, the paper debunks the idea that millennials are buying fewer houses and new cars because they want to live lower-consumption lifestyles, and instead supports the view that they just haven’t accumulated the wealth to afford these big purchases. On the other hand, economist Alison Schrager argues at Quartz that the Fed data can also be read a different way, and that millennials “are in fine shape, maybe even richer than previous generations, but they have just chosen to invest in different assets”—i.e., higher education: