What does entering adulthood in the midst of a profound economic crisis do to a person?
Charles Schewe, marketing professor at the University of Massachusetts, says he asked himself that question when the Great Recession hit America at the end of the last decade. “People are losing their jobs, so let’s see if those who are coming of age right now are being impacted by that,” he thought. Schewe wanted to find out if people aged 17-23–or “young Millennials”—were becoming more like the young adults who came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Were they spending less money? Were they becoming more worried about their chances of succeeding later in life?
As it turns out, the answer to both those questions is “no.” In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, Schewe and his colleagues say people aged 17-23 feel more entitled and are more interested in overt displays of wealth than the upper edge of the Millennial cohort, those aged 27-31.“We expected saving money and being thrifty to be important for young Millennials, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” he says.
And if the research is correct, young people not only aren’t worried about how much they are spending, but they actually want to make sure people know that they are spending a lot, Rich Kids of Instagram-style.
Social scientists believe that the values of a cohort are shaped by big events between the age of 17 and 23–when young people become politically aware and economically independent. People who grew up during the Great Depression, for instance, tend to be very preoccupied with saving money and reducing waste. But young Millennials, the new research suggests, are oblivious to the current strains on government spending and aren’t worried about what that could mean for their pensions–if, by the time they retire, they even have pensions.
“These findings are roughly consistent with over-time studies finding generational increases in narcissism and overly positive self-views and decreases in political interest and environmental concern,” says Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book Generation Me.
Not everyone is convinced by the study, though. Neil Howe, a consultant and author who coined the term “Millennial Generation”, believes the difference in values between older and younger Millennials could just be because they’re at different stages in their lives: younger people in any generation are bound to be a bit more carefree.
Schewe believes his study accounted for that difference. But he does admit that the recession’s effects on young Millennials could be latent. All the respondents were university students, which means that many of them were, in economic terms, “still in the womb,” says Schewe. They could yet face a rude awakening once they leave that insulated world.
Also contentious is the fact that the younger Millennials interviewed were mostly business-school students, while the older cohort were not.“There might be a selection bias,” says Howe.“If the goal is to work for Goldman Sachs, you will probably have very different motivations than an art student–it’s the business school psyche.” Schewe counters: “On the other hand, you would expect business students to be more concerned about their personal finance and their quest for success,” he says. “We didn’t find that to be true.”
If the results are accurate, though, perhaps companies thinking about their marketing should take note. If young Millennials indeed feel themselves more entitled, says Schewe, “using taglines like ‘you deserve it’ should resonate.”