Let’s start with the environment. While previous generations wrestled with pollution, that’s a low-level version of what the world faces today. Millennials have inherited the problems associated with climate risk, and there are many of them. Coastal flooding, more violent storms, record breaking heat (each year), wild fires, drought, famine, lack of water, global dislocation, geo-political wars, disease, pandemics, and so on.
That alone might be enough, but let’s consider societal challenges. Notwithstanding a strong economy, one in every six Americans is food insecure, and most are living paycheck to paycheck, while the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans continues to widen. As inequality.org points out, “The rich don’t just have more wealth than everyone else. The bulk of their wealth comes from different — and more lucrative — asset sources. America’s top 1 percent, for instance, holds nearly half the national wealth invested in stocks and mutual funds. Most of the wealth of Americans in the bottom 90 percent comes from their principal residences, the asset category that took the biggest hit during the Great Recession. These Americans also hold almost three-quarters of America’s debt.”1
Speaking of debt, according to Jack Friedman at Forbes, in 2017, student debt in the U.S. crossed the $1.3 trillion mark2, making it the second highest consumer debt category, behind only mortgage debt. Graduates in their twenties now spend on average $350 per month paying down student debt; and as Sarah Landrum, writer and founder of Punched Clocks, points out in Forbes, “There are many kinds of freedom, but very few of them are possible to achieve without financial dignity.”3
The flip side of student debt is an educated workforce. Millennials represent the best-educated generation in U.S. history, but with 80 million members, and a changing nature of jobs in America, unemployment and under-employment combined with heavy debt burden create significant financial challenges for this cohort.
According to Pew Research Center, Millennials are “the first in modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty, and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than any other generation at the same stage of life.”4
Beyond economics, Millennials are both racially and ethnically diverse, and are concerned about a wide variety of social justice areas including racial discrimination, women’s health and reproductive issues, healthcare in general, and immigration. This perhaps explains a decidedly more liberal outlook than previous generations. In The Generation Gap in American Politics, Pew Research Center looks at political preferences of various generations through the lens of first year job approval ratings of U.S. Presidents. Unsurprisingly, the single biggest approval gap belongs to Millennials. Obama had a 64% approval rating after one year in office. Trump is at 27% approval after his first year. In contrast, Boomers were at 50% Obama and 44% Trump.5 Hopefully the picture is becoming clearer. Millennials have a lot of challenges facing them, and even without much money (yet!), they are making their intentions known. Given the dysfunctional political climate in the U.S., (and remember, it has been this way for over seventeen years, so basically it’s the only political environment Millennials have ever known) young Americans have increasingly turned to corporations to drive the social changes they expect.
In the next installment of this series we’ll examine their relationship to corporations, as this informs their approach to brand preferences, career decisions and impact investing.
1 Wealth Inequality in the United States. Inequality.org, 29 May 2018
3 Landrum, Sarah. “Millennials, Technology and The Challenge of Financial Literacy.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 7 Aug. 2017.
4 Drake, Bruce. “6 New Findings about Millennials.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 7 Mar. 2014.
5 “The Generation Gap in American Politics.” Http://Www.pewresearch.org/, 1 Mar. 2018.