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The truth about millennials: they are diverse, complex and surprisingly like their elders

Millennials drink more tea. Millennials don’t eat McDonald’s hamburgers. Millennials are in favour of developing natural resources. Millennials invest in ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds). Millennials think their lives will be worse than their parents’. More Chinese millennials than ever before are travelling.

A sampling of today’s news stories about this generation, which happens to make up about one quarter of the Canadian population, shows intense interest in their habits, values and lifestyle choices, but these stories give little insight into who millennials really are. A new study of millennials in Canada by the Environics Institute and several other groups, says it does, and it is important to do so because this generation, now in the age range of 21–36 years, “will shape Canada for the next half-century and beyond.” They are “literally” the country’s future, and leaders and institutions need to understand them as “citizens, consumers, employees, voters and donors.”

So who are they then, really? Until now we haven’t really understood, says the Environics report, our image of the millennial generation shaped by a few statistics about youth unemployment, student debt and digital literacy. The new research, however, is based on social values theory—an analysis of beliefs and conceptions about how one should live and what goals one should pursue—focusing on life goals, career aspirations, community involvement, consumerism, political engagement and such.

Much of what passes for analysis of the youngest generation of Canadian adults amounts to little more than anecdote and stereotype. Aside from data on youth unemployment and student debt, the Canadian conversation is remarkably devoid of solid evidence about how millennials live, what they think, what they value, what they want, or what they hope to achieve. Are they motivated strivers facing a tough job market, or entitled brats who are too picky to accept an unfulfilling job?  Are they talented digital innovators or just screen addicts? Have they been nurtured by their Boomer parents’ loving encouragement, or are they entitled narcissists poisoned by a lifetime of unearned praise? Newspapers, newsfeeds, and dinner tables teem with opinions.

The six tribes of millennials

Right from the start we see that we are dealing with many different types. The report, “Canadian Millennials: Social Value Study,” differentiates groups of millennials by placing them in six “tribes” according to certain dominant characteristics and attitudes towards money, work, society, politics. There are Engaged Idealists who are socially connected and upbeat, keen to make a contribution to society, active, working. Like the very small cohort (just 4 per cent) of Critical Counterculturists, they question the status quo and authority (which makes them sound rather like the baby boomers). New Traditionalists, who make up 14 per cent of millennials, are more religious and respectful of authority. They  “would not be out of place in the 1950s,” with their conservative values and strong desire for marriage and family.

Lone Wolves, on the other hand, (one in six are in this tribe) are making the least progress and are most likely to be unemployed, less educated, unengaged in the community and lacking in goals. There is an obvious stereotype here: the young, white man living in his parents’ basement and playing video games all day long, but the study finds that they are equally likely to be male or female.

Lone wolves are solitary and lack strong social connections, says the Environics study.

The largest tribe, is the Bros & Brittanys (one in three), who, apparently, just want to have fun. They want the financial stability provided by a good job and they would rather get along than worry about changing the world. They are described as “enthusiastic consumers” who pursue thrills, risks, excitement and gratification. They like to look good and be respected, they embrace technology, and they enjoy being socially connected. As one twenty-seven-year-old female of the tribe put it, “A lot of people in my generation think it’s acceptable to go out and buy whatever you want, drink, party, and don’t give a second thought about student debt or basically anything.”

The Bros & Brittanys are, in short, what most non-millennials of the older variety probably think of when they think of millennials.

Bros & Brittanys: enthusiastic consumers, risk takers, socially connected.

Adulthood still means having a job and owning a home

But youth, as they say, is fleeting. People do grow up. Do millennials have a concept of adulthood that differs from that of other generations? Yes, but no, it seems. In a prompted response question in which respondents were given six “markers of adulthood” to rank in importance, most (96 per cent) picked “having a full-time steady job” as the most essential or important. Owning a home was considered essential or important by 80 per cent. These are values that millennials share with previous generations of Canadians. Having children and getting married, however, were rated the least important signs of adulthood, which seems to reflect a generational trend. Birth rates are falling everywhere.

The importance placed on these markers varies according to tribe, as would be expected. The tribe known as the Diverse Strivers, an ethnically diverse, career-oriented group, is most likely to value a good job and home ownership. Those rebellious Critical Counterculturists, on the other hand, are least interested in home ownership or any of the other markers of adulthood. Just 3 per cent of them want to have children.

As for their own perceptions of how they differ from older generations, some said it had to do with technology (“my parents struggle to use smartphones and even tablets”) and with being adaptable in a fast-changing technological society, “the ability to figure things out, the ability to learn things quickly, and the ability to be agile.” Others see themselves as more entitled to a work-life balance, viewing their parents’ generation as being “very practical” and hard-working, without caring much about what kind of work they do as long as it supports the family and lets them retire comfortably.

Source: Environics

Unfortunately, the study finds that fewer than half of millennials of all tribes think that have enough money to live the way they want to, even those who earn over $100,000. Many feel they are doing worse than their parents were doing at the same stage of life, though millennials born outside of Canada are more optimistic, especially those with Asian and non-white ethnicity. Engaged Idealists are the most likely to be optimistic about future earnings; Lone Wolves are the least optimistic. How millennials feel about their financial prospects also depends on their age, education and marital status; older (32–36), better-educated millennials who have life partners are more likely to feel better off than their parents. Younger millennials (21–26) with less income naturally feel worse off than their parents.

Millennials’ attitudes towards education appear to be rather mixed. On the one hand, those with higher levels of education are more likely to be confident about achieving their career goals, but only three in ten of them believes that having a post-secondary degree is essential to having a fulfilling life. Fewer than half of those who do not have a degree plan to get one. The study concludes, however, that education is in fact one of the key factors that determines how well millennials are faring today and how well they can expect to do in future.

How millennials differ from other generations

Where millennials stand out from other generations in terms of social values, the report concludes, is in their pursuit of intensity, risk, novelty, personal creativity and originality, as well as their sexual permissiveness and acceptance of violence as a fact of life, one that can be “cathartic and persuasive.”

This generation is slightly weaker than their parents on values such as financial concern, defined as insecurity about one’s financial future, and consumerism. They are less likely to purchase things for utilitarian reasons and less sceptical about artificial “needs” for products created by marketers.

Millennials stand out in their ability to adapt to the uncertainties of modern life without feeling threatened by change, their willingness to accept non-traditional definitions of families, and in their feeling of alienation and aimlessness, this latter being most associated with the Lone Wolves tribe.

Source: Environics

And of course there is that enthusiasm for technology. To the question “What makes the millennial generation unique?” the most common response from millennials was “digital literacy.” There is less of a generation gap here than might be expected, though. In fact, the study found that millennials are more likely than Generation X was to feel “technology anxiety,” a concern about the ethical and moral implications of new scientific developments.

What millennials most want to have in their lifetime, the study concludes, is positive family or partner relationships, whether that means a traditional marriage with children or not, followed by financial security and a meaningful career or work, as well as travel, and home ownership. The priority on family and relationships is at the top of the list across the generation, but is most evident for women, and those in the Engaged Idealist and New Traditionalist tribes.

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