Millennials aren't materialistic, according to the widely circulated cliché. They are less likely to own a car or a home than members of previous generations because they're (allegedly) more focused on experiences than on things.
But wait: Recent research shows that, as they get older, Millennials' rate of home purchasing rapidly catches up with those of their predecessors. It now appears they're just as interested in nice things as the rest of us—if and when they can afford them.
Then again: A 2013 study found that, when they were in 12th grade, Millennials were quite interested in having lots of money and owning expensive goods. Indeed, according to that study, their materialism matched the "historically high levels" of Generation X.
Perhaps the Millennial stereotype we're now debunking wasn't based on solid evidence to start with.
Depending on your point of view, this confusion can suggest that attempts by researchers to find population-level differences between one generation and the next are either (a.) pointlessly generalized and hopelessly flawed, or (b.) a source of valuable insights into our evolving attitudes and behaviors.
Where Do We Draw Generational Lines?
"Beto O'Rourke is a walking, talking Generation X cliche" the Washington Post recently proclaimed. But does the exuberant presidential hopeful really embody the traits we associate with people born between (roughly) 1965 and 1980? And are our assumptions along those lines even valid?
"The discussion of 'How is my kid's generation different from mine' has been going on for centuries," argues San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of the books iGen and Generation Me. "People have always been fascinated by the idea that their kids might be having a different experience than they did growing up. I think those discussions have intensified as cultural change has accelerated. Your experience as a teen is probably different from your kids' experience. One hundred years ago, that probably wasn't true."
Perhaps, says George Washington University psychologist David Costanza, co-author of an upcoming book chapter titled "Inappropriate Inferences from Generational Research."
But "the idea that Millennials or Gen X'ers are a distinct group—there's literally no research that backs that up," he insists. "Some research purports to, but it can be criticized in many ways. Those distinct groups just are not there."
The many complications of this debate start with the attempt to define what "generation" means. That's not as easy as you might think.
For some researchers, the Baby Boomers represent the clearest argument that generations are distinct. Demographer George Masnick, a senior research fellow with the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, argues the Baby Boom "clearly was a generation unto itself." Births spiked with the end of World War II, and stayed at an elevated level for two full decades.
"Society was totally unprepared for so many kids in school, and then so many people entering the labor force," Masnick notes. Those changes forced people to focus on the needs of this huge emerging population, which gradually shifted to a discussion of how they differed from their parents in terms of education, marriage, and other markers.
Then things got fuzzy. People born during the subsequent "Baby Bust" were christened "Generation X," and afterward, with the turn of the century approaching, "Millennials" became the consensus title for the generation that followed.
Millennials began to come of age in the year 2000 though, meaning that the Millennial "generation" had to begin in 1980—cutting "Generation X" down to a mere 15 years.
"That was an arbitrary demarcation, but it stuck," Masnick laments.
Twenge identifies Millennials as people born between 1980 and 1994, with Generation Z, or the "iGeneration," beginning with kids born in 1995. While Twenge stands firmly behind 1995 as a meaningful marker for a variety of reasons, she concedes that, "for the other [generations], you can make different cases for where those cutoffs should be, because there are not stark differences."
In Costanza's view, that's precisely the problem.
"A colleague and I are teaching a class on the changing nature of work—what it was like 50 years ago, what it might be like 50 years from now," he says. "We're trying to understand that in useful ways, without talking about artificial groupings."
"But that's how you do statistical analysis," replies Twenge, a Gen X'er born in 1971. "You group people and compare them. Generational research is no different. Most of it is focused on personality traits, attitudes, behaviors, indicators of mental health—how all of those differ, on average, depending on when you were born."
"It helps us understand people younger and older than us. It has helped me understand my parents, and my kids," Twenge continues. "If people overgeneralize, that's a danger, but it's a problem of people misinterpreting the research—for example, thinking average differences apply to everyone."
When Generational Analysis Goes Awry
Costanza—who was born in 1964, making him a very late Boomer or very early Gen X'er—argues there are more problems than the ones Twenge describes. For one thing, he says, some people conflate generational differences with changes that occur as people grow older.
"On the way home, I heard on the radio that 75 percent of Millennials expect to be promoted within one year," he reports. "Is that because they're Millennials who went through some events in their lives that left them feeling entitled? Well, no. People who are in the early stages of their career tend to get promoted, and the types of organizations we have today tend to promote people quickly."
Twenge dismisses this criticism, noting that her research compares people of the same age from different generations. As an example, she points to a just-published paper in which she and her colleagues analyzed self-reports from 13- to 18-year-olds about how they spend their free time. The researchers compared answers given by today's teens with those provided by kids of the same age in the early 1990s, late 1980s, and, for 12th-graders, all the way back to 1976.
"We found that iGen teens spend significantly less time with their friends face-to-face compared to Boomers and Gen-X teens," Twenge reports. "Hanging out with friends, going to movies with friends, riding around in a car—all of those declined."
"We found right around this same time, loneliness shot upward. We can't prove one causes the other, but I think most people would agree that it makes sense that if the way you interact with your friends changes, that could have an effect on loneliness," Twenge says.
Twenge and Costanza agree on one point: The cliché that the younger generation is narcissistic is out of date. Both point to research showing that indicators of inflated self-esteem among college students seem to have peaked eight or 10 years ago.
Twenge argues that this dip in self-regard, and a concurrent rise in reported feelings of loneliness, can be traced to the sudden omnipresence of the smartphone.
"Ten years ago, only about half of 12th graders were using social media almost every day," she says. "Now, for girls, it's 90 percent. So in that time period, social media moved from optional to mandatory. When it was optional, people who were high in narcissism could use it to get attention for themselves. Perhaps it helped their self-esteem. But when it became mandatory, it was still dominated by those folks who wanted to be there—and they made everybody else feel bad."
"That's when you see the negative turnarounds in the trends of mental health and happiness, with depression increasing and life satisfaction and happiness decreasing. It's one of the most sudden generational shifts I have ever seen," Twenge says.
Costanza argues that major changes such as the sudden proliferation of smartphones could indeed change people—but not necessarily in a uniform way.
"The impact is going to vary substantially," he insists. "It's not going to create a distinct group." Indeed, Costanza argues that differences among members of the same generation are likely just as big as average differences between generations.
"There is always going to be plenty of variation within a group," Twenge counters. "Gender differences are a good example. There are lots of variations among men and among women, but there are significant, meaningful differences between men and women. The same is true for generations."
'Vital Information,' or a Way to Sell Books?
Twenge argues that generational analyses provide vital information—both for parents trying to understand their own kids, and for societies that need to plan for what types of support young people will need in the future. If you're creating a budget for a university's counseling center, it'd be useful to have an idea of how rapidly the number of kids seeking help is likely to increase, and to get an idea of what may be triggering their problems.
Costanza specializes in organizational psychology, and his distrust of generational analysis is partly based on how generational comparisons are used, or misused, in the workplace.
"In a new book chapter, we looked at 500 articles that purported to test generational differences," Costanza says. "This is what you take away: 'There's going to be generational conflict. Younger workers need to be managed differently. Organizations need to customize human resources to account for differences between generations.'"
"We then debunked each of those claims. 'Here's a strange group of people, but I can give you seven ways to take care of them' is a good way to sell books," Costanza continues. "Saying they're not that different, and you can manage them the way you've always done it, is not going to result in a best-seller."
Twenge agrees that there are poorly trained, poorly informed consultants who offer inflated claims about generational differences that are not grounded in good research. She also agrees that some major societal changes, like the shift from communal values to individualistic ones, have been occurring gradually for many years. (Psychologist Roy Baumeister argued in a prescient 1987 paper that this trend can be traced back to the Renaissance.)
For his part, Masnick, a veteran demographer, believes that dividing and studying people based on generation can be enlightening.
"The Millennials have all this student debt that other generations didn't have," he says. "Also, the economy has become more and more of a 'gig economy.' Even people with regular jobs in that generation drive Ubers or work online to earn extra money. So there are genuine differences facing Millennials, which you have to recognize."
Of course, plenty of people overstate the scope or impact of such trends. But Twenge argues that just because research is sometimes misused or misinterpreted doesn't make it invalid.
"Just because people tend to make bad generalizations doesn't mean we shouldn't study generational differences," she says. "If anything, it means we should, to understand what the real differences are."
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Generation Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
Why We Can't Judge Generation Z by the Standards of Previous Generations
I used to worry about this allegedly cosseted generation. Then came the shootings in Parkland, and I began to see another side of these young people that humbles me. Read more
Generation Z Is Far More Nuanced About Tech Than Its Predecessors
Take some time to talk with the young adults in your life about recent technological changes. Their responses may surprise you. Read more
Gen Z's Message to Parents: 'Put Your Phone Down.'
In our conversations with young people, it's become clear that technology abuse is rampant—among their parents. Read more
Parents' Phone Use Is Taking a Toll on Their Children's Development
I'm hopeful that the next generation of children, after watching us be fools for our devices, may decide it's not worth it. Read more