Millennials are primed to become the key decision makers for those trends that will soon define our current century. This is the curse and the blessing of living in interesting times. And it is both this curse and blessing that will see millennials leading the world out of the age of scarcity and into the age of abundance.
But before we dive into all of that, just who are these millennials?
Millennials: The diversity generation
Born between 1980 and 2000, Millennials are now the largest generation in America and the world, numbering just over 100 million and 1.7 billion globally respectively (2016). Particularly in the US, millennials are also history's most diverse generation; according to 2006 census data, the millennial composition is only 61 percent Caucasian, with 18 percent being Hispanic, 14 percent African American and 5 percent are Asian.
Other interesting millennial qualities found during a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveal that they are the most educated in US history; the least religious; almost half were raised by divorced parents; and 95 percent have at least one social media account. But this is far from a complete picture.
The events that shaped Millennial thinking
To better understand how Millennials will impact our world, we first need to appreciate the formative events that shaped their worldview.
When millennials were children (under 10), particularly those who grew up in the 80s and very early 90s, most were exposed to the rise of 24-hour news. Founded in 1980, CNN broke new ground in news coverage, seemingly making the world's headlines feel more urgent and closer to home. Through this news oversaturation, Millennials grew up watching the effects of the US War on Drugs, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. While too young to fully grasp the impact of these events, in a way, their exposure to this new and relatively real-time medium of information sharing prepared them for something far more profound.
When Millennials entered their teens (largely during the 90s), they found themselves growing up amidst a technological revolution called the Internet. All of a sudden, information of all kinds became accessible like never before. New methods of consuming culture became possible, e.g. peer-to-peer networks like Napster. New business models became possible, e.g. the sharing economy in AirBnB and Uber. New web-enabled devices became possible, most notably the smartphone.
But at the turn of the millennium, when most millennials were edging into their 20s, the world seemed to take a decidedly darker turn. First, 9/11 happened, followed soon after by the Afghanistan War (2001) and Iraq War (2003), conflicts that dragged on throughout the decade. Global consciousness around our collective impact on climate change entered the mainstream, largely thanks to Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). The financial collapse of 2008-9 triggered a prolonged recession. And the Middle East ended the decade in a bang with the Arab Spring (2010) that brought down governments, but ultimately led to little change.
In all, millennials' formative years were filled with events that seemed to make the world feel smaller, to connect the world in ways never experienced in human history. But these years were also filled with events and realizations that their collective decisions and lifestyles could have serious and dangerous repercussions on the world around them.
The Millennial belief system
Largely thanks to their intimacy with the Internet and their demographic diversity, millennials’ increased exposure to different lifestyles, races and cultures have made them more tolerant and liberal when it comes to social issues. The numbers speak for themselves in the Pew Research chart below (source):
Another reason for this liberal shift is due to millennials' exceedingly high levels of education; American Millennials are the most educated in US history. This education level is also a big contributor to millennials’ overwhelmingly optimistic outlook—a Pew Research survey found that among Millennials:
- 84 percent believe they have better educational opportunities;
- 72 percent believe they have access to higher paying jobs;
- 64 percent believe they live in more exciting times; and
- 56 percent believe they have better opportunities to create social change.
Similar surveys have also found millennials to be decidedly pro-environment, substantially atheist or agnostic (29 percent in the US are unaffiliated with any religion, the largest percentage ever recorded), as well as economically conservative.
That last point is perhaps the most important. Given the aftereffects of the 2008-9 financial crisis and poor job market, Millennials' financial insecurity is forcing them to hold off from embarking on key life decisions. For example, of any generation in US history, millennial women are the slowest to have children. Similarly, more than a quarter of Millennials (men and women) are delaying marriage until they feel financially prepared to do so. But these choices aren’t the only things millennials are patiently delaying.
You can say that Millennials have a troublesome relationship with money, largely stemming from them not having enough of it. 75 percent say they worry about their finances often; 39 percent say they are chronically stressed about it.
Part of this stress stems from Millennials' high level of education. Normally this would be a good thing, but given the average debt load for the US graduate has tripled between 1996 and 2015 (noticeably outpacing inflation), and given that millennials are struggling with a post-recession employment funk, this debt has become a serious liability for their future financial prospects.
Worse, millennials today are having a tough time affording to be grown-ups. Unlike the Silent, Boomer, and even the Gen X generations before them, Millennials are struggling to make the "traditional" big-ticket purchases that epitomize adulthood. Most notably, home ownership is temporarily being replaced by long-term renting or living with parents, whereas interest in car ownership is gradually and permanently being replaced altogether by access to vehicles through modern carsharing services (Zipcar, Uber, etc.).
And believe it or not, if these trends drag on, it could have serious repercussions across the economy. That's because, since WWII, new home and car ownership have driven economic growth. The housing market especially is the lifebuoy that traditionally pulls economies out of recessions. Knowing this, let's count the obstacles millennials face when trying to take part in this ownership tradition.
1. Millennials are graduating with historic levels of debt.
2. Most millennials started entering the workforce around the mid-2000s, shortly before the hammer dropped with the 2008-9 financial crisis.
3. As companies downsized and struggled to stay afloat during the core recession years, many laid plans to permanently (and increasingly) shrink their workforce through investments into job automation. Learn more in our Future of Work series.
4. Those millennials that kept their jobs then faced three to five years of stagnant wages.
5. Those stagnant wages oozed into minor-to-moderate annual pay increases as the economy recovered. But altogether, this suppressed pay growth has permanently impacted millennial lifetime cumulative earnings.
6. Meanwhile, the crisis also led to much tighter mortgage lending regulations in many countries, increasing the minimum down payment needed to purchase a property.
Altogether, bigger debt, fewer jobs, stagnating wages, fewer savings, and much stricter mortgage regulations are keeping millennials out of the "good life." And out of this situation, a structural liability has crept into the global economic system, one that for decades will make future growth and post-recession recoveries severely sluggish.
That said, there is a silver lining to all this! While millennials may have been cursed with poor timing when it came to when they entered the workforce, their collective demographic size and their comfort with technology will soon let them cash in big time.
When Millennials take over the office
While the older Gen Xers begin taking over the Boomers’ leadership positions throughout the 2020s, the younger Gen Xers will experience an unnatural supplanting of their career advancement trajectories by younger and far more technologically savvy millennials.
‘But how can this happen?’ you ask, ‘Why are millennials leapfrogging ahead professionally?’ Well, a few reasons.
First, demographically, millennials are still relatively young and they outnumber Gen Xers two-to-one. For these reasons alone, they now represent the most attractive (and affordable) recruitment pool out there to replace the average employer's retiring headcount. Second, because they grew up with the Internet, millennials are far more comfortable adapting to web-enabled technologies than previous generations. Third, on average, Millennials have a higher education level than previous generations, and more important, education that is more current with today's changing technologies and business models.
These collective advantages are beginning to pay real dividends in the workplace battlefield. In fact, today’s employers are already beginning to restructure their office policies and physical environments to reflect millennial preferences.
Companies are beginning to allow occasional remote work days, flextime and compressed work weeks, all to accommodate millennials' desire for greater flexibility and control over their work-life balance. Office design and amenities are becoming more comfortable and welcoming. Furthermore, corporate transparency and working towards a ‘higher purpose' or ‘mission,' are both becoming core values future employers are trying to embody to attract top millennial employees.
When Millennials take over politics
Millennials will begin taking over government leadership positions around the late 2030s into the 2040s (around when they enter their late 40s and 50s). But while it may be another two decades before they start wielding real power over world governments, the sheer size of their generational cohort (100 million in the US and 1.7 billion globally) means that by 2018—when they all reach voting age—they will become a voting block too large to ignore. Let's explore these trends further.
First, when it comes to millennials’ political leanings, about 50 percent view themselves as political independents. This helps explain why this generation is far less partisan than the Gen X and Boomer generations behind them.
But as independent as they say they are, when they vote, they overwhelmingly vote liberal (see Pew Research graph below). And it's this liberal-leaning that could very well shift global politics noticeably to the left throughout the 2020s.
That said, an odd quirk about millennials' liberal leanings is that it shifts noticeably to the right as their income rises. For example, while millennials have positive sentiments around the concept of socialism, when asked whether a free market or a government should manage the economy, 64% preferred the former vs. 32% for the latter.
On average, this means once millennials enter both their prime income-generating and active voting years (around the 2030s), their voting patterns may begin supporting fiscally conservative (not necessarily socially conservative) governments. This would once again shift global politics back to the right, either in the favor of centrist governments or maybe even traditional conservative governments, depending on the country.
This is not to dismiss the importance of the Gen X and Boomer voting blocks. But the reality is that the more conservative Boomer generation will begin shrinking noticeably during the 2030s (even with the life-extending innovations currently in the pipeline). Meanwhile, the Gen Xers, who will assume political power globally, between 2025 to 2040, are already seen to vote centrist-to-liberal. Altogether, this means that millennials will increasingly play the role of kingmaker in future political contests, at least until 2050.
And when it comes to the actual policies millennials will support or champion, these will likely include increasing government digitization (e.g. making government institutions run like Silicon Valley companies); supporting pro-environment policies related to renewable energy and taxing carbon; reforming education to make it more affordable; and addressing future immigration and mass migration issues.
Future challenges where millennials will show leadership
As important as the abovementioned political initiatives are, millennials will increasingly find themselves at the forefront of a range of unique and new challenges that their generation will be the first to address.
As touched upon previously, the first of these challenges involves reforming education. With the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), it's never been easier and more affordable to access education. Yet, it's the pricey degrees and hands-on technical courses that remain out of reach for many. Given the need to constantly retrain for a changing labor market, companies will experience pressure to better recognize and value online degrees, while governments will experience pressure to make post-secondary education free (or nearly free) for all.
Millennials will also be at the forefront when it comes to the emerging value of access over ownership. As mentioned earlier, millennials are increasingly foregoing car ownership in favor of access to carsharing services, renting homes instead of carrying a mortgage. But this sharing economy can easily apply to rental furniture and other goods.
Similarly, once 3D printers become as common as microwaves, it will mean anyone can print out the everyday items they need, as opposed to buying them retail. Just as Napster disrupted the music industry by making songs universally accessible, mainstream 3D printers will have the same impact on most manufactured goods. And if you thought the intellectual property war between torrent sites and the music industry was bad, just wait until 3D printers become advanced enough to print a high-performance sneaker in your home.
Continuing on this ownership theme, millennials' increasing presence online will pressure governments to pass a bill of rights protecting citizens' online identities. The emphasis of this bill (or the different global versions of it) will be to ensure that people always:
● Own the data generated about them through the digital services they use, regardless of who they share it with;
● Own the data (documents, pictures, etc.) they create using external digital services (free or paid for);
● Control who gains access to their personal data;
● Have the ability to control what personal data they share at a granular level;
● Have detailed and easily understandable access to the data collected about them;
● Have the ability to permanently delete data they’ve already shared.
Adding to these new personal rights, millennials will need to also protect their personal health data. With the rise of cheap genomics, health practitioners will soon gain access to the secrets of our DNA. This access will mean personalized medicine and treatments that can cure most any illness or disability you have (learn more in our Future of Health series), but should this data be accessed by your future insurance provider or employer, it could lead to the beginnings of genetic discrimination.
Believe it or not, millennials will eventually have children, and many of the younger millennials will be the first parents who gain the option to genetically modify their infants. At first, this technology will only be used to prevent extreme birth defects and genetic diseases. But the ethics involving this technology will quickly expand beyond basic health. Learn more in our Future of Human Evolution series.
By the late 2030s, law enforcement and litigation will be fundamentally restructured when Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology matures to a point where computers reading human thoughts becomes possible. Millennials will then need to decide whether it’s moral to read a person’s thoughts to verify innocence or guilt.
Should the first true artificial intelligence (AI) emerge by the 2040s, millennials will need to decide what rights we should give them. More important, they will have to decide how much access AIs can have to control our military weapons. Should we only allow humans to fight wars or should we limit our casualties and let robots fight our battles?
The mid-2030s will see the end of cheap, naturally-grown meat globally. This event will significantly shift the millennial diet in a more vegan or vegetarian direction. Learn more in our Future of Food series.
As of 2016, over half the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, 70 percent of the world will live in cities, and closer to 90 percent in North America and Europe. Millennials will live in an urban world, and they will demand their cities gain more influence over the political and taxation decisions that affect them.
Finally, Millennials will be the first people to set foot on Mars on our first mission to the red planet, likely during the mid-2030s.
The Millennial worldview
Overall, millennials will come into their own amidst a world seemingly stuck in a perpetual state of flux. In addition to showing leadership for the abovementioned trends, millennials will also need to support their Gen X predecessors as they deal with the onset of even bigger trends like climate change and the machine automation of over 50 percent of today’s (2016) professions.
Luckily, Millennials' high level of education will translate into an entire generation of novel ideas to address all these challenges and more. But millennials will also be lucky in that they will be the first generation to mature into the new era of abundance.
Consider this, thanks to the Internet, communication, and entertainment have never been cheaper. Food is getting cheaper as a share of the typical American budget. Clothing is getting cheaper thanks to fast fashion retailers like H&M and Zara. Forgoing car ownership will save the average person roughly $9,000 a year. Ongoing education and skills training will eventually become affordable again or free. The list can and will expand over time, thereby softening the stress Millennials will experience while living through these aggressively changing times.
So the next time you’re about to talk down to millennials about being lazy or entitled, take a moment appreciate the giant role they’ll have in shaping our future, a role they didn’t ask for, and a responsibility that only this generation is uniquely capable of taking on.