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26 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Ban the M word – why it’s time to stop talking about millennials

Let’s not get distracted by silly and reductive tropes being used mainly by commercial enterprises.

By Iona Bain

I’m one. You may be one too. You certainly know a few. “Millennials” is the widely accepted term of reference for roughly 14 million people in the UK today.

Technically, it’s my job to understand “millennials” because I’ve been writing about my generation’s financial prospects for the past seven years. When I first started in my early 20s, though, I hardly ever used to hear the term “millennial”. Frankly, I don’t think young workers were influential enough to be defined so routinely. But as we came of age, we started buying stuff, and expressing opinions, and even voting. Suddenly, we became a bit more important. So we needed a convenient description that could be used by companies, politicians, self-help experts and the odd controversialist. Quick! What about millennial? That’ll do. If you can pop “snowflake”, “entitled” and “avocado brunch” in there, all the better.

No matter that the term is weird and misleading. Why “millennial”? What was so significant about the millennium for us as opposed to any other living human? The M word was likely to have been coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in the US in 1987 to describe those leaving school around 2000. And yet it came to encompass pretty much any human being born between 1982 and 2000. Why?

Maybe because 9/11 is seen as the “defining” moment in our young lives. But what about the developmental gap between someone who was 18 at that time compared to an eight year old, with young Americans also having an inevitably different experience from young Brits? And how about the financial crash, and its gigantic impact on our wages and labour prospects? Surely that is about as “defining” as it gets?

No matter. The flawed M word slowly spread from the US to the UK. Now rarely a day goes by when a press release about “millennials” doesn’t ping into my inbox. Their subject lines frequently lecture me on what “millennials” do with their money, laundry, lovers, pets, toenail clippings…

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There is no real evidence to support their claims, unless you consider surveys of tiny samples based on leading questions from companies with a vested interest in promoting certain outcomes as being rock solid data. And these claims constantly cancel each other out. One hour, I’ll read that 71 per cent of millennials don’t’ save any money. The next…guess what? 64 per cent of millennials are brilliant savers. Deary me. 

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I hear it frequently said that millennials are shunning traditional workplaces. Yet the official data show only a 1.8 per cent rise in the number of self-employed millennials since 2006. So why do media outlets make copious references to millennials in articles about the “gig economy”? I suspect some rather groovy businesses, relying on dubious labour practices like zero hours contracts under the guise of “giving millennials the working patterns they’ve always dreamed of”, have subliminally influenced lazier journalists to make this tenuous connection.

Reality is more nuanced than people brandishing the M word would have you believe. These people include Simon Sinek, the self-styled motivational speaker whose online critique of infantile millennials generated more than 56 million views on Facebook within four months.

His basic argument – that millennials have been enfeebled by indulgent parents, addiction to technology and unrealistic expectations – is so crude and blatantly self-serving (he is, after all, the expert who will save us from ourselves if we’ll pay him by the hour), I am amazed it wasn’t questioned more vigorously by his intended audience.

How can I have the same life experience as someone belonging to a different class, a different background, a different gender, a different region – even if we happened to be born on the same day, let alone in the same decade? The word “millennial” is too smothering, too often moulded to fit the interests of whoever is using it to be truly meaningful.

What the real data shows us is, in fact, far more interesting. The Bank of Mum and Dad will influence our life prospects far more than any of our millennial traits. A clear divide in prosperity is opening up between those who are receiving financial help from their families, and those who aren’t. We have to keep restating that divide if we’re really going to help young people secure their futures, regardless of what family they were born into. In the meantime, let’s not get distracted by silly and reductive tropes being used mainly by commercial enterprises seeking to further their own interests.

Iona Bain is the author of Spare Change and the founder of the Young Money Blog.