“I’m sick of reading about millennials,” said my millennial colleague. I had to laugh. We all know that a minute can’t pass without an article being written about the complexities of this generation. And yes, you’re reading another one now, though in my defense (I say this with a smile) this article addresses an aspect of the millennial story that’s often missing: the subject of how millennials are approaching life stages differently than previous generations.
Life stage is typically a more accurate predictor of people’s needs and purchasing decisions than their birth dates (with the exception of healthcare-related categories). Millennials often defy the stereotypes traditionally associated with the transition to adulthood, which results in significant economic implications worth studying.
Until recently, traditional milestones for moving from youth to adulthood included experiences such as full-time employment; living independently; marrying; and having children. These markers are changing fast, as many millennials (and older generations, for that matter) remain childless or have children later in life, embrace being single, define relationships more broadly than marriage alone, take “gig economy” jobs and live with their parents or other people well into adulthood. In our work at Female Factor, we study these changing milestones and the impact they have on women’s consumer spending.
A comprehensive new report from the U.S. Census Bureau, The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975-2016, sheds light on these dynamics:
- Traditional adulthood milestones generally happen later for Millennials than for previous generations — and often not in the same order, and sometimes not at all.
For example, according to Pew, more than a million millennial women are becoming mothers each year.¹ Does this mean that these parents are married before their baby’s birth — or ever? Not necessarily. Nearly 40 percent of all births in the U.S. are to unmarried parents. There are multiple reasons for this, including the fact that living together is more socially accepted than in the past, and so is staying single longer and marrying later. Millennials are tying the knot later than any generation before them, and are often waiting to achieve educational goals and financial stability before walking down the aisle (if they choose to do so at all). Today, the average age of first marriage for a woman in the U.S. is 27.²
The lesson for marketers? Create broad depictions of families and relationships in marketing elements such as visuals, copy, questionnaires and forms. If you don’t think stereotypes still exist, think again. Just yesterday I filled out an online form to buy something from a consumer brand, and there were only two titles to choose from before my name: Mr. or Mrs. I had to check my watch to make sure it wasn’t still 1980.
- There are now more young women than young men with college degrees.
In the U.S., women now earn the majority of bachelor degrees, master degrees and doctorates.³ The Census report shows that young women’s economic gains have outpaced young men’s over the last four decades. Consider that twice as many single women as single men own their own homes, according to Bloomberg. Outside of the beauty and fashion industries, the economic power of young women is often underestimated and overlooked. This is a missed opportunity for many businesses — especially those in the category of considered purchases. Women in this generation aren’t waiting to get married before investing in themselves.
The lesson for marketers? Lean toward portraying young women as active drivers of their own destiny, and not passive observers of other people. For example: consider the number of automotive commercials that feature a male driver behind the wheel of a car, driving past a woman who looks on from the sidewalk. This kind of passive portrayal often feels out of date in a world full of educated, employed women who buy their own cars.
- Getting a job doesn’t necessarily mean moving out of your parents’ house right away.
More young adults lived with their parents than with a spouse in 2016, according to the Census report. This is due to many factors, including widespread student debt and financial instability, the latter of which may continue as the gig economy grows and full-time jobs with generous benefit packages become more scarce. Many immigrant families also bring a tradition of multi-generational households to the U.S. Does this mean that young adults who live at home don’t have spending power? Not necessarily. In fact, some may have considerable disposable income if they’re earning a good income but not paying rent. This is a group that deserves more study.
The bottom line: Progression into adulthood for millennials is not always linear: they are taking a variety of paths and longer routes to reach some — though not all — of the destinations set by previous generations. Inevitably, millennials are creating new milestones and new destinations along the way. Marketers, take note: by paying close attention to their life stages and meeting their needs, you have an opportunity to be a part of this generation’s new milestones and accompany them on the journey.
- Pew Research Center, More than A Million Millennials are Becoming Moms Each Year (December, 2016)
2. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (2015 )
3. U.S. Department of Education (2012)
4. U.S. Census Bureau, The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975–2016
Article originally published on Forbes.com
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