People really like to lump all millennials — a huge, diverse group of millions of people — into one mass. Call it the myth of the millennial monolith, or MMM: Millennials are all similar and can all be explained in broad strokes. This myth has been used to, among other things, incite undue panic over “hookup culture” (despite evidence more millennials are having no sex than previous generations), make overblown claims about the generation’s fragility, and help Chuck E. Cheese convince itself there’s nothing wrong with its business model.
Another great example comes from an article published yesterday in The Atlantic. In it, Derek Thompson highlights the fact that the share of 18-to-34-year-olds who own a house has hit a 30-year-low. This has brought with it all sorts of MMM-fueled cultural explanations about what’s up with those darn millennials and their refusal to settle down. Thompson doesn’t go into the specifics, but they’re familiar to all of us by now anyway: Millennials are more lazy, more entitled, less responsible. They don’t look at family and responsibility in the way previous (read: better) generations do.
“But in the noble rush to overturn tired stereotypes about Millennials being an undifferentiated blob of privileged mewling,” Thompson writes, “some analysts are missing a deeper story.” Namely, when you actually dig into the data there are two entirely distinct reasons millennials aren’t buying homes:
On the first track, there are high-achieving students, who disproportionately come from richer districts. This group is more likely to move away to go to college and then settle in one of a handful of dense cities, where they delay buying a house (and delay starting a family) in order to rent throughout their 20s and focus on their careers. For example, about half of college graduates are working outside their state of birth by the age of 35. This group is also mostly white. They are the supermobile: ambitious, devoted to their professional lives, and comfortable with a life path that has them getting married in their late twenties-to-mid-thirties.
The second track is different in almost every way. Millennials who grow up in poor neighborhoods are less likely to move, less likely to go to college, and even if they go to college, they are less likely to leave their zip code. Drawing on the work of New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey, Richard Florida wrote that 70 percent of black residents in America’s poorest and and most segregated neighborhoods “are the children and grandchildren of those who lived in similar neighborhoods 40 years ago.” They are stuck.
The point is that if you just look at millennials as a broad group — if you buy into the myth of the millennial monolith — you’re erasing a huge amount of the complexity that underpins why people do what they do.
Obviously, youth culture changes over time and there are such things as generational differences, but a 30-year-old riding the good fortune of an advanced degree and rich parents will likely have an utterly different set of goals, priorities, and beliefs about his future than one still living at home and unable to find a job. The myth of the millennial monolith wrongly lumps them together in the same category, and while that may be good for pageviews ginned up by scoldy moral panic, all it really does is confuse matters.