By Emily Erickson
In preparation for this week’s column, I clicked open my browser to search for the latest buzz around Millennials. I conduct this search regularly enough, digging for insights and discussion fuel, but the conversation as of late has been fairly stagnant. Between the classics (“Are Millennials Bound to Live in Their Parents’ Basements Forever?”; “How Millennials’ Entitlement Makes them the Worst Employees”; “Is Avocado Toast the Root of the Millennial Financial Crisis?”; etc.) and the shiny next generation starting to take the stage, I didn’t have big expectations for what I’d find.
So, as I directed my cursor over the “news” button with the familiar word “Millennial” placed inside the search bar, I was delighted by the headlines that started popping up.
Business Insider wrote: “A Surprising Number of Millennials are Saving for Retirement, and They’re Making Gen X Look Bad,” followed by a Forbes article, “How Millennials are Changing the Retirement Conversation.” Below these was a scathing BuzzFeed News writeup, “Millennials Have Been Supporting Their Boomer Parents on the DL, Census Data Shows.”
These articles, among many other similarly titled stories, came out in a flood and piggy-backed off each other’s results, praising Millennials for our financial imagination and savviness, despite the odds stacked against us. They cited analysis of the recent U.S. Census Bureau study “Survey of Income and Program Participation”; a Wells Fargo survey on savings and retirement trends; and a Morning Consult study of financial health, debt, earnings and savings.
They highlighted facts like, “45% of millennials have a retirement savings account and 33% are actively contributing to it,” and “the same share of millennials and Gen Xers — 14% — have between $25,000 and $100,000 saved in personal retirement accounts.”
The list of articles discussed patterns of behavior and attitudes toward retirement that have specifically set Millennials up for success, like delaying putting down roots, valuing entrepreneurship and free agency, and harboring distrust of Social Security as a viable retirement option.
Furthermore, the articles celebrated Millennials’ lack of convention — taking a breaking (or already broken) system and bending it to our will. They described us as, “cutting spending and making far less frivolous purchases than their predecessors,” and relayed that “just as many American millennials have been quietly supporting their parents as boomers who have been supporting their adult children.”
In reading all of this, my first feelings were those of vindication. “Yes! See! I knew we weren’t the society-sucking leeches we’re made out to be!” I’ve always marveled at what my Millennial-aged peers have been able to accomplish, and could anecdotally discount the harsh charges against us in my circles alone. I’ve personally lived scraping through rent payments and searching for a new way to do things. My friends have started businesses and demonstrated both savviness and frugality. Collectively, we’ve proved that we are greater than the generalizations ascribed to us.
But, just as I was approaching the peak of my gloating, another set of feelings started to creep in. Those were how absurd the whole thing is. Of course, Millennials can’t be summed up by our shortcomings, just as the Boomers aren’t as soft as the Depression-hardened generation before them claimed. And, of course, as more Millennials are taking charge of the narrative, we’re painting ourselves in a more positive light.
This reflection is not to discount the facts and findings of these studies — rather, it’s to act as an assessment of how we all navigate our place within society. Collectively, we tend to believe that the way we do things is the right way, and that those straying from the norm or uniquely reacting to their circumstances are causing unnecessary ripples in our perfect systems.
Soon, I’m sure, I’ll grow weary of how members of Gen-Z communicate and question their way of doing things, too. But it’s my hope that as generalizations of entire populations on the basis of my own fear or discomfort begin to surface, I’ll remember that I was once entirely defined by a love of toast.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.
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