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Millennials versus Boomers February 2017

As young adults, Millennials differ from Baby Boomers of the 1980s. The fragmentation of social values during the 1980s was disruptive; the long-term effects of today's constrained economic environment that Millennials face may be different from what the 1980s saw, but may prove to be equally disruptive to society.

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Millennials (born 1977–96) represent 35% of the US adult population (86 million), reports spring 2016 VALS™/GfK MRI. Millennials-headed households currently represent 30% of all US households (according to Strategic Business Insights' 2016–17 MacroMonitor). Millennials have now reached parity with Boomers in terms of the proportion heading up households. As more Millennials establish households, the number of Millennials-headed households will grow (roughly 35% of Millennials still live with their parents or a relative or as dependents), and the number of Boomers-headed households will decline as a result of attrition.

Millennials differ in several respects from previous cohorts: They are forming households later, and they are using technology to help them save time and money. However, the most important difference between individual members of the two generational cohorts is for US society and its economic future: Millennials are falling behind their Boomers parents, according to a 13 January 2017 report from the advocacy group Young Invincibles. Overall, Millennials' median net worth (assets minus liabilities) is one-half of Boomers' net worth in the 1980s, and Millennials' wages are 20% lower. Millennials' lower wages than those of Boomers at the same age results in a lower tax base to support all types of future government spending, such as for social programs, infrastructure, and regulatory agencies that keep air, water, and food safe.

The media characterizes Millennials, as an age cohort, differently from the way the media characterized Boomers as young adults. VALS explains why. The majority of young US adults enter the VALS framework as Experiencers—self-expressive, sociable, and spontaneous. As Millennials mature, find jobs, buy homes, and have children, many will morph from being primary Experiencers to being secondary Experiencers. Their primary type will change to that of a group contiguous to Experiencers: Achievers or Strivers, for example. The most recent data report that of 43% of all Millennials are primary or secondary Achievers. This high proportion suggests why, as a cohort, Millennials have a desire to follow life's traditional path. Achievers are not rebellious but want to conform as a means to gain recognition and approval; they act as anchors of the status quo.

Having come of age in a period of economic turmoil, most Millennials are under no illusions that anyone will help them or that anyone (except possibly their parents) is looking out for them. As a result, many are distrustful of Wall Street, large corporations, the 1%, and a dependence on credit. Too young to worry about retirement, many are concerned about immediate needs such as health care and paying off student loans. For Millennials with children, worries are about health care, child-care and education expenses, and the ability to obtain a home mortgage. (Watch Maturing Millennials, a video presentation about Millennials' financials.)

In contrast, Boomers came of age during an era of fragmenting social values. At the time, they were rebellious. With a heightened social consciousness, many reacted against the establishment's values, the oppression of women and people of color, and (the Viet Nam) war. Sit-ins and marches made Boomers' voices loud—and many are still marching, as the Women's Marches during the 45th president's inaugural weekend demonstrated. Although we have no method to calculate retrospectively the proportion of Achievers in the 1980s Boomers cohort, their behavior suggests a much lower proportion of status-quo Achievers as Boomers came of age than for Millennials.

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