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Millennials aren’t big spenders or risk takers, and that’s going to reshape the economy

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

October 24, 2016


WASHINGTON — 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.

Millennials tend to prefer experiences over buying things and accumulating stuff. To them, an impressive selfie capturing a memorable moment is, in some sense, as enviable as a new car or fancy watch was to their parents.

Neil Howe, an economist and demographer who coined the term "millennials" with co-author William Strauss, sees it as part of a redefining of American conspicuous consumption.

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.

"If you’re a foodie, you can go out and have some incredible dining experience, and then you can curate it almost as if it were a thing," Howe said. Millennials are one reason restaurants have been doing well — and hiring so many workers.

Dominick Ardis, 29, typifies his generation. In between jobs this year, the Tallahassee, Fla., resident scrounged money from family and friends so he could immerse himself in Hebrew studies this summer at Middlebury College in Vermont. Last year it was the art of glass-blowing. And before that he was getting voice lessons.

"Music is such an emotional and experiential event," he said. Ardis is interested in his career and making money, too. It’s just that he’s got other things on his mind, like taking a trip to Cuba next year.

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 for 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.

"I don’t believe they’re going to catch up," said John Burns, an Irvine, Calif.-based national real estate consultant.

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, according to the Kauffman Foundation’s latest annual study of entrepreneurship.

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.

"This could be really troubling," says Arnobio Moreli, a senior research analyst at Kauffman.

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.

Moreli believes some would-be entrepreneurs are being held back by their heavy student debt load. Nonetheless, he finds it 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, says Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist and author of "Generation Me."

Their relative risk-aversion may have something to do with the protective environment that parents and schools created for millennials, emphasizing participation over winning. Said Twenge: "Everybody got a trophy."

Partly because of such pampering, Twenge argues, 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.

Surveys have found that millennials, while less interested in traditional politics, care deeply about their communities and are volunteering more than earlier generations of young people.

"I do sense that public service, community service is in their DNA," said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. He thinks that’s partly because many high schools, starting in the 1990s, mandated community service hours before graduation.

Millennials also came of age in a more racially diverse and economically stratified America, which has made them more sensitive to social issues and things like gender and income inequality. Gay rights are a given.

Back in 1990, whites made up 73 percent of young adults age 18 to 34. That share dropped to 63 percent in 2000, when millennials were just entering adulthood, and it’s now down to 55.8 percent, according to William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer.

Increasingly, the face of prime-age workers in the U.S. are people like Lionel Mares of the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles.

A second-generation Mexican American who grew up watching news of school shootings and inner-city violence, the 30-year-old pursued a degree in sociology from Cal State Northridge. Mares, too, has struggled to find a good job, and in recent months has been volunteering at a local legal aid center.

His heroes aren’t Zuckerberg or athletes like Michael Phelps. He gets inspiration from people like Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady known for her social reform work and spirit of volunteerism.

Mares is the first in his family to graduate from college; his dad was a handyman, his mom a seamstress. He plans a career in the public sector. "I want to give back to the community," Mares said.

Their emphasis on community and social causes is starting to be felt on Wall Street, too. Beyond their outsized participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement a couple of years ago, millennials already are overrepresented in investments focusing on so-called environmental, social and governance issues, said Amy O’Brien, managing director and head of responsible investment at TIAA Global Asset Management.

She notes that many millennials were in high school and college when the financial crisis struck, and that’s had a lasting influence. "They put a large value on business ethics," O’Brien said.

Their sense of community has also made millennials more progressive when it comes to public assistance programs, from Obamacare to student debt relief. And far from the antigovernment spending mantra espoused by many of their parents, millennials have largely embraced liberal ideals about government, explaining why Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (and her former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders) have put forward programs to subsidize college tuition and raise the federal minimum wage.

"They actually trust big institutions like government more than older people (do)," said Howe, the generational trends expert. "They believe we could put in a strong set of community and national organizations that would assume a high degree of dependence on these institutions …. We would all give more to the community and the community would give us back in an equitable way."