Who Truly Are the Millennials? Anatomy of a Buzzword

Clichés on millennials abound. Here is a nuanced analysis of seven preconceived ideas about 18 to 34 year-olds that debunks several myths surrounding this generation.

Written by Alexandra Yeh (Méta-Media)

The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X: we have always loved labelling and categorizing generations. Who are the most recent victims of this tendency? Youth born between 1980 and 1995 (or between 1980 and 2000—nobody really knows for sure). The marketing world has decided and, in the process, has recuperated a term invented by two historians in 1989: they form the Millennial generation.

The myth gradually took shape, and millennials are now hyperconnected youth with higher learning degrees, who believe in the collaborative economy and are sensitive to environmental issues. An entire imagery has been built around the (fantasy?) figure of a young, eco-friendly, entrepreneurial and engaged urban dweller. This description resembles more a pile of clichés than a representative portrait of the diversity of millions of individuals…

But what really lies beyond the cliché? The question is worthy seeing as millennials represent close to 2 billion people on Earth. That’s exactly what think tank La Fabrique de la Cité undertook in its latest study titled Les Millennials, une légende urbaine. In its study, the group closely examined seven preconceived ideas about this overly mediatised generation.

An urban generation?

A first characteristic is that millennials are necessarily urban. As pointed out in the study, youth are city dwellers [translation] “who are attracted by the evolving labour market and income levels, and changing lifestyles (millennials study longer and get married at a later age). They are also characterized by a stronger preference for more dense environments with public transit services.”

It is true that youth are statistically more prone to settle in urban centres than rural areas. However, what is especially observed is a polarization of places of residence according to income. Not surprisingly, the cliché of millennials living in the downtown core applies mainly to affluent youth, whereas the others reside mainly in peripheral urban areas. There is consequently a need to relativize the stereotype of the urban millennial.

Roommates rather than owners

In this era of Uber and Airbnb, the Millennial generation is more interested in shared living spaces than home ownership, and being roommates has therefore become the norm.

However, more than an ownership aversion, this trend especially reflects economic conditions that are less and less favourable to youth (polarization of income, decreased buying power and reduced savings) as well as a structural change in lifestyles (longer academic studies, later entry in the labour market, marriage at a later age).

Consequently, it is not because they are prone to sharing and living as a community that millennials purchase their first house later in life. This would instead be explained by the cross effect of the economic situation and lifestyle transformations.

Public transit instead of the automobile

Metro, bus, train, car pooling… According to marketers, millennials favour public transit. However, according to the La Fabrique de la Cité, the popularity of public transit in no way results from [translation] “a change in how mobility is considered that would be specific to this generation.” To the contrary, the tendency to abandon the automobile is observed among all generations and results mainly from economic limitations.

Increased sensitivity to environmental issues

Aware of the importance of protecting the environment since childhood, millennials are ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘organic’. This preconceived idea is, however, not always factual: paradoxically, youth [translation] “are at once sensitive to ‘sustainable’ and ‘ecological’ sales arguments yet totally ignore the environmental costs of their habits, namely of their voracious use of new technology.”

There is therefore no possible generalization: certain millennials are sensitive to environmental issues, whereas others are less, but generational patterns are impossible to establish.

Breakdown of frontiers in the workplace

Impossible to ignore the cliché of active youth working on their laptops with a cup of coffee in a co-working environment filled with young people also on their laptops. Today, millennials are increasingly fond of these “third places” where they oscillate constantly between work and leisure.

That’s true, but the popularity of these third places simply results from a more intrinsic transformation of work. What is observed is the breakdown of frontiers that traditionally made up the workplace, and it’s not unique to millennials. As noted by La Fabrique de la Cité, today [translation] “the workplace in its most incompressible form has become the laptop or even the smartphone. […] The concept itself of assigning an exclusive work function to a space is being called into question.”

Citizen involvement reinvented

Do millennials truly form the engaged generation that is often portrayed in the media? Youth movements like Occupy Wall Street have contributed to forging this image of young citizens engaged in noble causes. And for good reason.

However, more than belonging to a generation, it is mainly individuals’ level of education and cultural capital that determine their potential in terms of civic and political involvement. It is therefore difficult to claim that millennials are engaged whereas it is first and foremost their time spent in university “that conditions their desire and capacity to take part in city life.”

A new relationship with the city?

Behind this stereotype is the image of the millennial as a connected young urban dweller living in a ‘metropolitan village.’ In fact, there is not much that distinguishes millennials’ relationship with the city compared to how their elders relate to urban environments. All in all, their expectations are the same: quality of the environment and infrastructure, safety.

As we have seen, the millennial figure is the object of all sorts of fantasies. Rather than the faithful portrait of a segment of the population, it’s a mirror that magnifies the lifestyle of a portion of this population. As the study concludes, [translation] “the generational analysis grid is systematically less relevant than other prisms, such as income and education levels.”

Therefore, must we cease to use this term that resembles an intellectual shortcut rather than a fact? Not necessarily. It’s not really about abandoning the figure of the millennial—that we are the first to conjure up in our analyses—but rather to use it with the appropriate levels of caution and distance while keeping in mind the ideological and sociological biases that come with it.

This article was originally published on Méta-Média and is presented here as part of the editorial partnership between CMF Trends and Méta-Média. © [2017] [Méta-Média]. All rights reserved.

Méta-Media is France Télévisions' collective blog that focus on the evolution of traditional media, new media and journalism.
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