Debunking the myths about millennials, boomers and other generations
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Debunking the myths about millennials, boomers and other generations
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You’ve seen or heard the headlines for the apparent news stories: “Gen Z-ers can’t stand millennials who use thumbs-up emojis,” or “Millennials buy too much avocado toast,” or “Boomers still believe the customer’s always right.” A lot of those stories are based on non-scientific survey methods or anecdotal stories. And these narratives are also often false or at least incomplete.
Someone who has spent a lot of time swimming through the actual data on generations and their differences is Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Her new book is called “Generations.” She spoke about it with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio and the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: We often define these generations in terms of world events: the Great Depression, Second World War, 9/11. You’ve thought a lot about that. There are better ways to slice and dice ourselves?
Jean Twenge: I think so. I think when you really look at what has an impact on cultural change, and thus, on generations, it’s really not major events. It’s technology. That’s what influences how long we live, how we live our day-to-day lives, how we communicate. That’s what makes living now so different from living 50 years ago or 100 years ago.
Brancaccio: Well, I get it for more recent generations, digital natives, and so forth. But what about earlier last century? What was the technology that was defining?
Twenge: One thing that I keep coming back to is labor-saving devices, like washing machines and refrigerators and ovens.
Brancaccio: Let’s zoom into a particular generation that we hear so much about, dominated the headlines for generations: That’s the baby boomers, people born after the Second World War into the early- to mid-’60s, when it comes to the boomers. What can we say about inequality? I mean, the boomers had a lot of things come their way. But it’s much more nuanced than that you found?
Twenge: Yeah, it absolutely is. There’s this very strong perception that boomers, they rigged things, so then they succeeded and then they pulled the ladder up after they climbed it. So then Millennials couldn’t make it. That’s the very common narrative. And it’s really not true on several levels. One of which is there’s a very large segment of boomers who have not done particularly well, because they were the ones who decided to get a job at a factory. And then five years later, 10 years later, the economy shifted from manufacturing to service and they were stuck, because they made these decisions before that change happened. And then if you look, especially at boomers with and without a college education, there’s very, very stark discrepancies in terms of physical health and mental health. They’ve really been hit very, very hard.
Brancaccio: In other words, maybe boomers were primary victims of globalization which was not accompanied by retraining.
Twenge: I think you can make a good case for that. There’s a good segment of boomers who were the first victims of income inequality, rather than being its perpetrators, which is the way it’s often seen. But income inequality increased the most between 1980 and 2000. Boomers were not the ones who were in power when these things were changing. That was a generation older than them.
Brancaccio: How about this one: Boomers are monopolizing real estate, houses at the expense of younger generations? There must be some signs that that actually is happening.
Twenge: I was really surprised that there wasn’t. Millennials are almost as likely to own a home in their late 20s and 30s as Gen Xers and Boomers at the same age. Millennials’ homeownership rates are only a couple of percentage points lower. And also, if you look at housing prices, the older part, the older third or so of the millennial generation actually timed the housing market perfectly. Because they were often buying their first homes in the early 2010s, when prices were very low. It was Gen X who really got screwed by that housing crash because they had bought their houses before things crashed. Millennials bought them after when the prices were really good.
Brancaccio: Gen X, [born from] 1965 through let’s say 1979. But what about the [Gen] Z-ers when it comes to getting into homeownership? Born 1995 through, let’s say, 2012.
Twenge: Yeah, so the oldest are 28, so just entering the time when they might want to start buying houses. And of course, prices are a lot higher than they were a few years ago. So we don’t know yet how Gen Z is going to look, because it depends a lot on the way housing prices go the next few years. But the good news is salaries, income, for people in their late 20s are very good by historical standards. So that’s a sign that that may point toward some optimism for Gen Z becoming homeowners
Brancaccio: Let’s come back to it for just a moment: This common narrative on millennials is that they’re the first generation to be worse off economically than previous generations. I mean, you’ve looked at this in the book — you know, income, wealth, home ownership. What can we say?
Twenge: Well, it doesn’t look like that’s true, especially for income. So if you look at median household income, median personal income, they’re at all-time highs for people in their late 20s, early 30s, as well as late 30s, to early 40s, and that’s where millennials are right now. You graph it out from U.S. Census data, not difficult to find and the best source we have: Median incomes for those age groups are at all-time highs. Now, there’s been speculation about wealth and wealth building, and the Federal Reserve of St. Louis has looked at this. So a few years ago, they had alarm bells that millennials might be falling behind in terms of wealth. But that was right after the Great Recession. When they’ve updated their look at wealth, millennials are neck and neck to where Gen Xers were at the same age.
Brancaccio: But there certainly are differences among generations. Your book is full of them.
Twenge: Oh, absolutely. It tends to be differences more in the psychology and in life courses. So, one of the biggest ones is that the entire developmental trajectory has slowed down. From infancy to old age, people take longer, because people live longer. So kids are not as independent. Teenagers take longer to do things like drink alcohol or have jobs or go out on dates. Young adults take longer to get married and settle into careers and have children. Older people: 50 is the new 40. 70 is the new 60. And then people enjoy more years of life than they did 50 years ago or 100 years ago.
So that’s called the “slow life strategy.” And that’s one of the biggest generational differences, I think one of the biggest misunderstandings, between, especially, you know, Silents and Boomers, and their millennial kids or grandkids. “Wait, you know what’s going on that you’re 28 and not married yet?” But that’s now very common, because things have slowed down.
Brancaccio: Because if you’re going to live longer, you might get to each next life stage a little bit later. And the elders need to appreciate that a little better.
Twenge: That’s exactly what’s going on. You know, it slows down. It’s also a product of technology in another way that more education is now necessary to be competitive in an economy that’s driven by information and technology. And that’s one of the other huge generational differences. It used to be very, very common for people not to graduate from high school. And now the norm is to go to college. And that’s an enormous shift.
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