Battle of the Ages: Millennials vs. Boomers

Trends revealed. Myths debunked. MN’s most influential groups aren’t what you think.

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Minnesota’s largest generations—Millennials and Boomers—fight for influence.

Photos by Kevin White. stylist: jahna peloquin. hair & Makeup: Julie Lam, Wehmann Agency. models: Savannah Bhojwani, Wehmann Models & Talent, Inc; Robert Farah, Moore Creative Talent Inc.

When it comes to describing the generations, stereotypes abound: the Millennial as coddled, selfie-taking narcissist; the Boomer as materialistic corporate cog. While the defining characteristics of Millennials (born between 1981–2000) and Baby Boomers (born between 1946–1964) will always be up for debate, their influence is not. Millennials and Boomers currently comprise the country’s two largest generations, numbering roughly 75 million apiece and casting a long shadow on the Silent Generation’s 28 million and Generation X’s 66. 

To better understand Minnesota’s Millennials and Boomers, we pored over studies, talked to experts, and reached out to our readers to learn more about what makes these two groups distinct—and how they may be more alike than we think.

Our reporting leads us to believe that while there is more diversity within generations than between them, each cohort is shaped by the world into which they were born. Boomers were youthful rebels during a period of social upheaval who aged into more conservative affluence. Millennials arrived into an always-wired, globally connected age, comfortable with diversity and optimistic in spite of challenging economic times. How both groups mature and evolve as a collective will shape the future of our state.

battle of the ages, millennials, baby boomers


A transient lifestyle, with fewer possessions

Baby Boomers grew up with the American dream of owning a home with a white picket fence, a couple of Detroit’s finest in the driveway, and enough toys to fill the weekends. It’s been a different story for Millennials, who are far more likely to rent or even live with their parents than previous generations. They bike or use public transit in record numbers, and are known to prefer experiences over accumulating possessions. It’s a less materialistic way of looking at life, and in many ways more sustainable, but for some it can seem transient and rootless. The big question looking into the future: Will the Millennial generation trend toward Boomers’ stability and consistency as they age, or will they forge a new vision of the American dream?

What the Experts Say: Delaying Home Buying, but Catching Up

As the head of Minnesota’s State Demographic Center, Susan Brower is tasked with assisting policy makers, government, and businesses with comprehensive data, as well as traveling the state to discuss its social and economic changes. As such, she tends to take a big-picture view on the differences in the ways that Boomers and Millennials opt to live. 

“There’s an interplay between economic conditions and how they shape attitudes and preferences and outlooks,” she says, pointing out how Millennials have come of age in the shadow of the Great Recession. “It’s a much different landscape for them than it was for their parents, and for their parents.”

Home ownership was culturally central for Boomers, with many of their parents benefitting from the G.I. Bill and generating intergenerational wealth via home equity. Today, many more Millennials live with their parents into adulthood than in previous generations, and when they do strike out on their own they’re more likely to rent than to own—though that’s rapidly changing in Minnesota. 

“The most recent data in home ownership rates shows a pretty steep increase in people in their late 20s and early 30s,” Brower says. “Young people are moving into home ownership. There’s been a delay, but it’s not universal by any means.”

Brower adds that even if Millennials have distrust for being tied down with owning a home, the economic advantages can become too attractive once they’re actually able to afford it—which could account for why Boomers tended to buy houses at a younger age (because they could). 

The same general dynamic of opportunity shaping choices can also be seen at play in how Millennials and Boomers choose to get around. Boomers are more likely to be drivers, while today’s twentysomethings are more likely to avail themselves of public transit, bikes, or car services to get to work. 

But these attitudinal choices have also been shaped by historical conditions. Only in recent years has the Twin Cities invested in light rail and Nice Ride bicycle sharing, options that didn’t exist in the Boomers’ youth. And Millennials may also find their preferences changing. Their delay in settling down into marriage or partnerships has also led to a delay in having children—which affects transit choices. “Once you have kids, it’s harder to get to all the school activities and daycare and doctor’s appointments when you’re using public transit,” Brower says. “We could well see a change as Millennials move into the childbearing ages of their late 20s and into their 30s.”

One intriguing question is where Millennials will choose to live as they age. Population growth in Minneapolis and St. Paul in recent years has been heavily driven by Millennials and their preference for living in urban areas, but that could change as they transition into parenthood and home ownership (the suburbs might beckon). At the same time, many Boomers are downsizing and moving back to urban cores. 

Millennials haven’t settled down as early as the Boomers did, in part because they couldn’t afford it. But as the economy improves and the Boomers exit the workforce, Millennials might move into a phase of their lives that values the continuity and possessions they’ve previously done without. 

What You Say: MnMo Readers’ Thoughts on How the Two Generations Settle Down

“Possessions are easier to obtain today than in the past, but we have nowhere to keep them. On the other hand, tools like the internet have shown Millennials this entire world to experience.”

“Millennials have grown up seeing the complete internal desolation that comes with Boomers’ insistence on ‘keeping up with the Joneses.'”

“Boomers taught Millennials to experience as much as they can while they’re young and healthy.”

“Perhaps Millennials see their parents working so hard, and missing out on life, while chasing the dollar. Millennials are learning from Boomers’ mistakes.”

“Millennials seem to live and spend more in the ‘here and now,’ while Boomers grew up with parents who were all about saving, and efficiency, and value.”

“Our goals as Millennials are about careers and being further along in life before we ‘become our parents.’ Also, we can’t have those experiences in the
same way when tied down with kids. With life expectancy being higher, you don’t need to rush.”

View more comments on what MnMo readers think about settling down.

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Trading stability for variety

As offspring of war veterans of the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers entered the world compelled to prove themselves. In 1966, TIME magazine gave its “Man of the Year” award to the Boomer generation—talk about pressure. But they felt much more certain about their career paths than do today’s young adults. Millennials entered the work force amid the Great Recession, and though that’s cause for doubt among the most educated cohort to date, they also remain the most optimistic, still believing their future is full of opportunity to make a difference. Today, both generations are entering new life stages, riding the economy’s ebb and flow while sharing new values on finding meaningful work.

What the Experts Say: Seeking Meaningful Work

Minnesota writer Bob Filipczak, co-author of Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers in the Workplace, says that both Boomers and Millennials work hard, but through different means and for different reasons.

“Baby Boomers spent their lives trying to work on their self-esteem and self-actualization,” he explains. “They asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” For many Boomers, the ultimate goal was to climb the corporate ladder into a leadership position. The best way to measure this success was with an increasing paycheck. “The term ‘workaholic’ stemmed from this generation,” notes Filipczak. But in comparison, the Boomers’ strong work ethic doesn’t mean Millennials are lazy, they’re just starting out on a different path.

In fact, Millennials have led the most structured childhoods yet, shuffled between sports practices, school functions, and other extracurriculars while balancing increasing hours of homework. Parents taught Millennial children they were special, pressuring them to do great things—college became an expectation rather than a luxury for the elite. Such conditioning to a busy, scheduled lifestyle prepared the young adults for their disparate post-grad careers.

When Millennials entered the workforce, the job market was at its worst in nearly three decades. “When they got out of college, I wept for these kids,” admits Filipczak. Yet, after a childhood of being told they could do anything, Millennials remain hopeful. “Survey after survey shows them to be the most optimistic generation. They have good self-esteem,” Filipczak adds. Because of the collapsing job market, many college educated young adults have taken low-paying jobs not requiring a degree. Millennials may expect to have seven jobs by the time they’re 26 years old, but are still confident they will land their dream role. 

“I think Millennials are looking for a series of gigs because they can’t see a path,” adds Dr. Phyllis Moen, sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose. Moen’s research shows that right now, Millennials and Boomers are facing similar uncertainties and ambiguity in their lives. “They’re experiencing more blurred boundaries around classic age divides. They’re not sure what’s next,” she explains. 

Many Boomers are now retiring from a long, well-defined career, either by choice or due to layoffs. They are entering what Moen calls “encore adulthood,” or their second act. They may decide to help raise grandchildren or find a part-time job unrelated to their career (72 percent say they want to work in retirement). Both Filipczak and Moen explain that Millennials want to work a job that makes a difference, and that’s true for “second act” Boomers as well.

When Boomers were at the peak of their careers, they tended to create a work/life balance with a hard divide between the two. Filipczak describes Millennials as being more focused on work/life integration, especially because smartphones have enabled us to send emails or take a business call remotely—something Millennials find more acceptable than other generations. Millennials tend to pursue jobs they find fulfilling, merging work and their personal beliefs. Boomers’ values are shifting to coincide with those of Millennials, too. “They want more than just work,” Moen explains. “There’s less value on wages and high status, and more value on a meaningful and creative job with an opportunity to learn.”

What You Say: MnMo Readers’ Thoughts on How the Two Generations View Work and Money

“Boomers have a strong work ethic, and they know you have to work to get something. Millennials expect things because everything was all fair and ‘PC’ for them—everyone got a participation medal.”

“Millennials seem more affected by school debt, which inhibits their ability to ‘launch’ into the real world after college.”

“It isn’t unusual for Millennials to have more than 10 AP classes with A averages, multiple sports, broad community involvement, all just to gain admittance into college. Millennials reach a point of wanting to ‘just be’ after graduation.”

“Boomers find great pride in working and moving up the corporate ladder. But for Millennials, we find our joy in adventures and experiences outside of
the workplace.”

“When it comes to work, Boomers expected more traditional compensation packages including salary, paid vacation, medical, and retirement plans. Millennials value more non-traditional compensation such as flexible work hours and locations, casual dress, etc.”

View more comments on what MnMo readers think about the changes in how we work and why.

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More options, less pressure

Finding that special someone once meant you had to hit the sock hop—or at least get out of your pajamas. Today, all it takes is a mere finger swipe. The rise of online dating has given today’s singles access to a practically infinite pool of potential partners. At the same time, young people aren’t rushing into committed relationships: The marriage rate has dropped some 30 percent since 1950. (Among those who have taken the plunge in the past few years, more than a third met their spouses online.) The average age for first-time marriage continues to rise and, compared to Boomers, unwed Millenials are
far more likely to be cohabitating with a romantic partner. 

Just as the social pressure to marry has declined, the priority placed on family is changing as well. Kids are not presumed to come out of a marriage the way they were in Boomers’ day. Women are delaying having children, and having fewer of them. Minnesota’s birthrate is half what it was in 1950 and the median age at first birth has risen from early 20s to late 20s in just one generation.

What the Experts Say: Changing Courtship Patterns and Gender Roles

In teaching the popular intimate relationships course at the University of Minnesota—and serving as his students’ Ann Landers—professor Tai Mendenhall follows influences and trends shaping young people’s dating behaviors, as compared to prior generations. He identifies the rise of technology and changing cultural norms around gender equality as the two primary differentiating features of Millennials’ relationships. “It used to be that men’s career took priority: She had a job, he had a career,” Mendenhall explains. “That’s not the case now. What we see here at the U is that you’re not going to see a woman throwing her dream away to madly follow the boy—she’ll just find another boy.”

With greater economic opportunity, more women are creating their own financial security outside of marriage. At the same time, Mendenhall is seeing his male students express a preference for a career-minded female partner. “There are a lot of attractive women in the sea,” he says. “If this one doesn’t want to work and just wants to be sexy for you and wants you to pay for her, most young men would say no to that.”

In terms of finding partners, online dating has been widely embraced by all demographics as an easy way to connect with likely prospects and weed out those who aren’t a great match. “You don’t have to settle,” Mendenhall says. But the generations diverge when it comes to how they incorporate technology into dating, with Millennials feeling greater pressure to have constant availability and a more public personality. “In the Boomers’ early days and in their current dating patterns now, dating is more of a structured, purposeful process, where we’re going to set up something at 7 p.m. on such-and-such a day and it’s going to be you and me and we’re going to talk,” Mendenhall explains. “With Millenials, it’s all day long you’re texting or Instagraming or seeing activities on Facebook, or the whole group is going off to Sally’s on the East Bank—structured dating in the traditional sense is much less common.” The downside to the Millennial approach, Mendenhall notes, is that it’s not as focused. “Boomers are getting to know each other and developing this sense of ‘we-ness,’ and you’re seeing Millennials being so chaotic, scattered.” By contrast, widowed or divorced Boomers who are back on the dating scene are getting down to business, Mendenhall says. “Their first dates are more like job interviews.”

By relying heavily on digital interactions, Millennials risk making assumptions about the other person’s digital persona that are contrary to their true personality. “In the good old days talking on the phone was a connector, hearing each other’s voice tone was more intimate,” he says. “It was scarier, but it was a better way to communicate, because it’s so easy to misinterpret a text.” Because digital communication can be carefully edited and controlled, it feels “safer,” and people are more inclined to reveal things electronically that they might not in person. “There’s a comfort in saying something in text,” he says. “But it’s easy to get out ahead of the couple’s development by what you’re saying.” 

While Millennials may be getting ahead of themselves with emotional intimacy, that’s not necessarily the case with physical intimacy; Mendenhall says his students don’t appreciate the stereotypes about their so-called hookup culture. “Millennials are a lot more comfortable with their sexuality than Boomers were or are, but it’s not this mad crazy orgy that gets blown up in the media,” he notes. “Every generation has thought the younger one was too sexual.” They are also more open to different types of people and relationships than Boomers were at their age, as reflected in the rising number of same-sex and interracial or interethnic couples.

Infinite dating options are one reason Millennials are delaying long-term commitment, but economic challenges are also linked to the rising marriage age. “For many people it’s not okay to get married before you get an education because a thousand studies deep, the number one predictor of marriage stability is money, and the number one predictor of money is education,” Mendenhall explains. “When we look at divorce rates by state, the poorest states have the highest divorce rate.”

What You Say: MnMo Readers’ Thoughts on How the Two Generations Couple Up

“Many Boomers married out of high school because it was what their parents had done. The major attitude was that you needed to marry by the time you graduated college or you wouldn’t find anyone.”

“For both groups, it’s easier than ever to meet single people online—there are too many options, which makes you wonder what else is out there, and if you are selecting the right person.” 

“Millennials came of age in an era when more diverse views of relationships and family structures were the norm. There’s no longer the assumption that one has to be married to have children; that women (or men, for that matter) should be in a relationship to be fulfilled; that women need to be in a marriage to have economic autonomy.”

“Millennials date around, while Boomers were more exclusive. I mean: Tinder…”

“If Millennials shy away from commitment, look no further than the Boomers who raised them.”

View more comments on what MnMo readers think about the changes in dating and saying “I do.”

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Increasing diversity and access to information

Rapid changes in technology and demographics have given Millennials a perspective defined by choice and openness: They’re more racially diverse, their politics are more inclusive, and their views on religion are more individualistic. As a whole, Boomers’ lives when they were growing up involved fewer choices, less diversity, and less access to the broad range of viewpoints that Millennials take for granted. 

Millennials are also the first generation that grew up with the internet being as ever-present as the air we breathe. They’re the on-demand, high-information generation—just try explaining to a twentysomething how indispensable the Nightly News used to be. 

But the new digital world hasn’t entirely left Boomer elders behind. While cliché has the older cohort struggling with new technology, Grandma’s increasingly likely to have a Facebook account, and Dad is using his iPhone to check weather radar before setting out to fish the lake. Just as Boomers’ parents probably wondered where TV was going to lead us all as they settled down tentatively to watch, we’re sailing into the future together.

What the Experts Say: Technology Shapes Perspectives and Connections

University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development professor Cassandra Scharber says that the commonplace view of tech-saturated Millennials and digital dinosaur Boomers is far too simplistic. She prefers instead to think of our interactions with technology through the lens of research in a British journal that describes two camps—“visitors” of the internet world, and “residents”—and finds more variation within members of each generation than between the generations. It’s the difference between deepening our social connections and lines of communication and merely hopping online to buy a pair of shoes, for instance. Whichever behavior typifies an individual’s approach to the internet tends to be based more on individual needs and personality than clear-cut generational differences. 

“For residents, the internet is this place you go where you know there are other people,” Scharber explains. “You go there to communicate, share, and create, and its not separate from the rest of life. Visitors, on the other hand, go there because they need to do something very specific.”

Use of technology cuts across generations because digital communication channels—email, texting, Facebook, blogs—have rapidly become more accessible, even in the past few years. “You don’t have to be tech savvy at all,” Scharber says “It’s becoming really seamless, the way we can consume or post or share, it’s really simple and the technological aspects are behind the scenes—rather than getting in the way as barriers.”

That’s not to say there are no observable differences between Boomers and Millennials in more specific areas, though. Take social media: Boomers tend to use social media in a way that Scharber calls “outward-facing,” expanding their social circle by interacting with more distant family members and acquaintances than they would in real life, even if it’s a single “like” of a Facebook status. 

Meanwhile, younger people are turning inward. Social media outlets such as Snapchat are built for intimate connections that aren’t broadcast to the larger world. Growing up with hyper-awareness of the vastness of the internet and its pervasive reach has, paradoxically, made their generation more and more likely to cultivate small, private social spheres. 

Of course the effect of technology on life is basically a question of how information is transmitted (which was also true of the Gutenberg printing press). And the biggest distinction of Millennials and those coming after them is the fact that floods of information, coming with endless variety and limitless speed, are the context in which they were raised—a fundamental perspective shift. 

“The technology is constantly changing and constantly evolving,” Scharber says. “And for the Millennials, that’s what they do, constantly—figure out the new things, and how to move through them.”

What You Say: MnMo Readers’ Thoughts on How the Two Generations Communicate

“Millennials so often don’t even talk to each other when they’re together. It’s so depressing. Everyone is constantly somewhere else mentally, seeing what’s going on around the city on Instagram or texting other people in other places.”

“I think technology is a blessing and a curse. I am very thankful I didn’t have social media because as a young person growing into adulthood I sometimes didn’t make the best choices—now there is a permanent record that affects their long term options for college and jobs.”

“Boomers keep important things private, like how much money they make, illnesses they may have, even happy events because those are private. Through the use of technology, Millennials keep very little private; they discuss everything they are doing, every accomplishment and failure they experience, because they need that instant gratification or attention.”

“Boomers embrace technology more than they are given credit for—ever been to an Apple Store on a weekday?”

View more comments on what MnMo readers think about the way technology has impacted how we communicate and digest information.

Feeling left out, Gen. Xers? We haven’t forgotten about you.

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