Marketers often focus on very short-term trends. After all, it is important to keep up with the newest of the new. Fashions come and go with increasing rapidity, and the shift from “in” to “out” always makes for good copy in magazine articles and television or radio news features. But sometimes the most important stories are those that result from taking ten steps back and looking at the big picture told by long-term trends. These kinds of analyses are more likely to be the province of demographers or economists, but they also deserve the attention of marketers trying to understand the attitudes and worldviews of their customers.
Trend data compiled by the Pew Center show why Millennials are worse off than their parents. Pew’s approach uses one of the best tools of demography, a “cohort analysis.” This compares, say, 18- to 33-year-olds today with 18- to 33-year-olds of earlier generations, e.g. how does the employment profile of Millennials of 2014 compare to that of Gen Xers in 1998, Baby Boomers in 1980, or Silent Generation folks in 1963?
The resulting picture is not very pretty. Whereas nearly 80% of the young males of the prior generations were employed, the level for Millennial males was a notch below 70%. Boomers had a homeownership rate of about 37% in 1981 and Gen Xers had about the same homeownership rate in 2000, but Millennials in 2016 had only a 24% homeownership rate. The average level of student loan burden rose 63% from 2006 to 2016, with average debt levels now standing around $35,000. However, the odds have gotten longer of having sufficient earnings to repay those loans.
A similarly downbeat view emerges from a recent long-view analysis just published by the venerable Population Reference Bureau. “Losing Ground: Young Women’s Well Being Across Generations in the United States” documents a number of adverse long-term trends. If not always a case of losing ground, the report at least suggests stalled progress.
The PRB’s long-view analysis of generational trends are not all bleak. Women’s educational attainment continues to rise, with more women completing high school and college than in previous generations. But that has not translated directly into higher wages; indeed, the report finds that women need to notch higher educational achievements to earn at the same level as men. That said, the gender gaps in earnings and in business ownership have narrowed as each younger generation has progressed through the life course.
Many trends really do come and go quickly. However, it is prudent to also keep an eye on the bigger demographic and economic trend lines that affect everyone and that, in many subtle ways, influence the hopes and frustrations and expectations of our broad population.
Scott McDonald, Ph.D. (2017, Nov. 14). Taking the Long View: Millennial Disadvantage Relative to Other Generations. Forbes.