If you pay much attention to the world of retail sales, you will notice a trend: worry.
You will certainly find short-term worry about not enough people buying enough stuff—but that worry has always existed. In a society that bases its measures of success in terms of home prices, market values, and GDP, there will always be a need to prompt citizens to buy more and more.
But beyond the short-term unease, there is a long-term anxiety clouding the retail market. This long-term worry is far more significant and can be summarized in one sentence: Millennials don’t want to buy stuff.
Recently, in a radio interview for a station in Montreal, I was asked if I thought the desire to downsize was age-related. In the mind of the interviewer, it seemed to make sense that the older one got, the more they recognized the emptiness of material possessions and the need to minimize.
I assured the interviewer this was not always the case. In fact, from everything I can tell, the desire to minimize and declutter stretches across each of the generations. It is growing among the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X, and the Millennials. In my new book, The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, I highlight each of the unique forces drawing people of every age to minimalism.
But for the sake of this post, let’s consider some of the reasons Millennials are refusing to partake in the retail game as the rules are currently constructed and why retail giants are worried about it:
Technology and Mobility: The Millennials are the first generation born after the technological revolution. The world feels smaller to them than previous generations and they are intimately connected to one other—regardless of geography. Coffee shops have become the new office, collaboration has become the new competition, and mobility has become the new stability. And, as many Millennials will tell you, it is difficult to live a mobile lifestyle with a house full of stuff.
The Sharing Economy: Technology has ushered in a new connectedness with one another. Additionally, it has provided a platform on which access can take precedence of ownership. With the touch of a thumb, we can now borrow someone else’s home, bike, car, book, music, unused stuff, or countless other possessions. Ownership has never been less necessary.
Environmental Concerns: The Millennial generation is the most environmentally conscious of all age groups and this influences their buying habits significantly.
Living Preferences: The Wall Street Journal once reported 88% of Millennials desire to live in an urban setting and that one-third of the generation is willing to pay more because of it. Over the past several decades, retailers have banked on the growth of suburbia—bigger and bigger homes, further away from town-centers, fostering isolation, individualism, and personal ownership. As younger generations migrate toward smaller dwellings in walkable communities with shared amenities, consumer consumption will continue to slow.
Experiences > Possessions: As I have argued in the past, minimalism is not the end of spending. Even when minimalist principles are adopted on a large scale, the transfer of money will still take place—money will just be spent on different things than physical possessions (you can read more here: A New Minimalist Economy). The Millennial generation is proving this to be true, spending less on possessions, but more on wellness, food, drink, and experiences.
Debt/Unemployment: Certainly, significant economic trends have brought with it new shopping habits. The Millennial Generation has graduated college and entered the workforce in the middle of the Great Recession. In fact, most economic studies would indicate this generation is entering one of the worst working environments in modern history burdened with more student loans than ever.
Corporate Mistrust: Economic forces (housing bubble, student debt, shrinking of the middle class) and generational preferences (the environment, social justice) have resulted in a generation distrusting of large corporations and “the 1%” who run them. According to one study, 75% said that it’s important that a company gives back to society instead of just making a profit. While it would be interesting to know how previous generations would have answered the same question, one thing is for certain: the Millennial Generation is acting on this belief and choosing smaller, local retailers for their purchasing needs because of it.
There is one more factor that I think is quite significant. There is growing evidence that the Millennial Generation is “delaying adulthood.” At least, they are delaying adulthood as defined by economists (getting married, buying homes and cars, having children). Researchers point out that marriage is important to Millennials, they just want to do it later—the same with parenthood.
It remains to be seen whether the economic conditions of their upbringing have shaped Millennials to be minimal by nature or whether future economic growth and rites of passage will cause them to slip into the same excess of ownership that previous generations have fallen into.
But I am hopeful for the Millennial Generation. At the very least, they have examples to learn from. For example, both their parents and their grandparents continue to live beyond their means in crippling debt.
Millennials appear to be a generation hard-wired for minimalism.
I hope the trend continues.