Unofficial millennial spokesperson Lena Dunham, while incisive and entertaining, is not the voice of my generation.
On Dunham's buzzy dramedy Girls, self-involved twenty-somethings balk at $12 salads by day and guzzle $14 cocktails by night while their parents bankroll their "groovy lifestyles." It's an enticing narrative. But these stereotypes fail to recognize some rapidly evolving trends among young echo boomers entering adulthood.
Millennials, typically defined as anyone born after 1980, make up an enormous and diverse generation, but many of them share a common experience — entering adulthood during the country's greatest economic downturn since the 1930s. The financial duress of the Great Depression produced the Greatest Generation, a cohort of Americans known for conservative spending and saving habits, resilience, and a tireless work ethic. And believe it or not, young people who came of age during the Great Recession are beginning to mirror those habits.
Although graduates now enter an exceptionally difficult job market with an average $25,000 in student loans, they are often hired more quickly than job searchers from preceding generations, in part because they are more willing to accept jobs for which they are overqualified, according to a survey conducted by Millennial Branding and Beyond.com. For instance, while many unemployed members of Gen X continue to hold out for positions that meet their criteria, echo boomers will take retail and part-time jobs in the interim.
"I hope, and I do believe that I will have a job offer when I graduate, but I think that that speaks to my work ethic and the fact that I've been working every single semester and every summer since I was a sophomore," said NYU senior Maddie Chivi. "The reason that so many of us do put ourselves out there and are interning and our resumes are built already is because we are worried. There aren't as many jobs out there. People are out of work and to override that our generation has overcompensated to a certain extent."
Many members of Gen X entered the workforce in the 1990s digital bubble, and benefited from plentiful job opportunities, high salaries, and workplace flexibility. Millennials aren't experiencing the same gentle water birth into the working world. While a young Gen X grad might recoil at the prospect of long hours in an unpaid internship for the elusive potential to perhaps, one day, be gainfully employed, most millennials I know wouldn't dream of not doing so — despite what you see on Girls. Resume-building work for little to no compensation is par for the course for young people entering the workforce today. It's not worth complaining about. It's simply a necessary step to compete when jobs are few and far between.
Economic pressures have also revolutionized our perspective on sharing and ownership. Today's young people aren't showing the same interest in buying cars or homes that previous generations did in their twenties. Miles driven, vehicle sales, and teenagers obtaining drivers' licenses fell between 1998 and 2010, according to The Atlantic. A Federal Reserve study showed that the number of people taking out their first mortgages in 2000 was two times the number of young people doing so between '09 and '11.
Why? Largely because millennials are breaking from this traditional socio-economic trajectory in favor of temporary group living in more urban centers, and supporting companies that serve a new sharing economy. Transportation may have been about style and comfort for previous cohorts, but like anything popular with the millennials, it's now about speed, efficacy, and access. Companies like Ride Amigos Corp and Zipcar have reached enormous popularity with young people because they rely on technology to increase efficiency and reduce costs. This model is extending into other industries, like hospitality, with Airbnb, and apparel, with threadUP. Young people are prioritizing easy, low-cost access to these goods and services over the luxury of ownership.
Of course, millennials are still consumers. But what distinguishes us from our predecessors is how and what we consume. Despite the size of my generation, it represents the smallest group of luxury spenders today. While this can be partially explained by our lower incomes, millennials have different spending priorities than their predecessors did in their 20s. When we do purchase luxury goods, we go about it very differently than consumers in past generations did. Today, young people are more concerned with smartphones and tech gadgets when it comes to expensive purchases, and as smarter consumers, they find a way to afford them. They rely on daily deal services like Groupon and they are willing to sacrifice other expenses like designer fashion, cars, and meals out at fancy restaurants to acquire the items they find necessary for their daily lives, according to the Department of Labor Consumer Price Index for 2011.
"People say that millennials are very entitled people," says professor Aimee Drolet Rossi, a psychologist specializing in consumer decision-making at the UCLA Anderson School. But "increasingly, that's not going to be the case because there were no jobs for them. The economy was tough and they really needed to step it up. In education, there is less emphasis being placed on people feeling good about mediocre results. You're getting away from this trend of people in their present day 30s, where they got a trophy just for showing up."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How Ronald Reagan turned America into a nation of children
- Why Mitt Romney is perfectly poised for a comeback in 2016
- The Nazi smart bomb that inspired China's most dangerous weapon
- The crusade against Iraq War supporters has forgotten someone: Hillary Clinton
- Why is the West so afraid of Islam?
- Why scientists can't kill HIV
- 8 things the world's most extraordinary survivors can teach you about resilience
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- This week I learned the moon might be littered with dinosaur fossils, and more
- Summer movie guide: All the films you should see in August
Subscribe to the Week