The myth of millennial spending

Millennials: is high spending or low wages the problem? Source: Melissa Walker Horn (via Unsplash)

By Alys Hewitt

Frivolous, entitled and lazy…these are just some of the words that are intrinsic to descriptions of the typical millennial, their work ethic and spending habits. We are all aware that there is a proliferation of stereotypes surrounding millennials (largely defined as those born between 1980 and 2001), mainly perpetuated by older generations, that are less than favourable. Often these stereotypes are used to justify the bleak economic landscape in which we live, with issues such as minimum wage and a stagnant and increasingly untouchable property market being blamed on the fact that we are reluctant to work as hard as previous generations, and thus ‘do not deserve’ the privileges that were afforded to them.

However, recent research by the Federal Reserve, which examines the income, savings and consumption habits of millennials, disputes these assumptions. The dominant findings of this research point to the fact that, when adjusted for socioeconomic and demographic factors, we are not so unique after all in our patterns of spending and consumption. It is in fact wider economic factors, such as wages, employment figures and exposure to financial collapse, that are most instrumental in influencing and constraining these behaviours.

It is hardly a revelation that millennials are less likely to own a home at this stage of life than previous generations were; but is this a result of our work ethic and ability to save leaving a lot to be desired? Not exactly – it is more likely that declining wages and lower and more unstable employment rates have led to an increasingly difficult lending and borrowing situation. As millennials with weak credit ratings and lingering student debt, we are less likely to be trusted by banks in the lending process. Nevertheless, despite these barriers we are no less aspirational than those who came before us, with the majority of millennials still aspiring to eventually own their own property.

There is also evidence that our economic behaviours are pre-determined, even, by the generations we are born in and the economic conditions that permeated our formative years. Millennials’ spending patterns are intertwined with our experiences of events such as the global financial crisis, which have generally made us both worse-off and less likely to take risks in investment than younger people were in the past.

As this research suggests, the sweeping generalisations targeted towards millennials are not only unfair but untrue. The Federal Reserve’s findings reveal that it is wider and less tangible factors, rather than our own attitudes, that influence how younger generations consume, spend and save. Fixations on work ethic and our allegedly reckless spending habits is misguided and misdirected, diverting attention away from the real issues at play, such as low wages and job instability, and erasing accountability from those who have brought about these conditions in the first place.

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