There's A Big Difference Between Millennials And Generation Z

Millennials are old now, and Gen Z is way cooler than they could ever hope to be.

Lately, it seems the term “millennial” has morphed to mean any young person. And references to so-called millennials tend to include a healthy dose of condescension. But there are specific parameters and characteristics that separate millennials from other generations.

Millennials have mortgages and kids (OK, dogs and plants). Our LiveJournals are still floating around the internet somewhere. We need an eye cream.

We are not the technology-obsessed, instant gratification-seeking teenagers you keep referring to.

That’s Generation Z.

What age are millennials, anyway?

According to the Pew Research Center, millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means they will be turning 25 to 40 this year. And though that represents a wide range of ages, millennials are, on average, much older than people assume.

“The average age of a millennial in the United States is over 30,” said Jason Dorsey, a Generation Z and millennial researcher and author of “Zconomy: How Gen Z Will Change the Future of Business.”

Similarly to how baby boomers were named after an increase in birth rate, millennials were named because their upbringing took place at the turn of the millennium, “a time that is likened to digital advances, innovation and to some, perhaps fittingly, the end to the world as we knew it,” explained Amelia Rance, senior director of data strategy and analytics at marketing firm Fullscreen.

Because post-millennial generations have adopted the digital-first lifestyle, there’s some confusion over who is and who isn’t a millennial. But the differences are huge.

“There’s just a broad perception that you hear the word ‘millennial’ and that’s teenagers, or young 20-somethings,” Dorsey said. “And the reason was the name stuck so well that people just assign it to anybody young, even though they’re assigning it to a life stage, and not a generation.”

But why the cutoff at 1996?

The key distinction between millennials and Gen Z is that millennials lived through ― and remember ― 9/11, Dorsey said. It was the defining moment for those coming of age at the time, much in the same way that COVID-19 is the generation-defining moment for Gen Z right now, he said.

There are other important defining characteristics of millennials. For one, they’re the children of baby boomers. “What our research shows is baby boomers often raise their kids with the mindset of ‘We want it to be easier for our children than it was for us,’” Dorsey said. “And they succeeded.” It’s probably for this reason that millennials garnered the unfortunate reputation for being lazy and overly sensitive. Hey, no one’s perfect.

Another major distinction is that millennials were around for the rise of the internet. “Lots of people talk about millennials as if they always had social media and that is completely false,” Dorsey said. “Millennials were there when the internet was coming of age alongside them. But that was not Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and Tiktok ― that was email.” In fact, Dorsey explained that the best way to describe millennials is not technology-savvy, but technology dependent.

Finally, millennials are the generation that got screwed financially just as they were attempting to make their way in the world. “When we look at millennials, they really got hammered by student loan debt,” Dorsey said. “And then it was compounded by the Great Recession.”

As a result, millennials have dealt with years of economic struggle. They’ve delayed major milestones such as buying houses and starting families, and many are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

But millennials aren’t just about doom and gloom. “Millennials were the first to not only want — but force — others to break stereotypes of their generation,” Rance said. “They believed they were more than just standard demographics, intersectional in their identities and wanted to be spoken to as a whole person with many different attributes.”

What defines Gen Z

Generation Z was born between 1997 and 2012, making the oldest members of Gen Z around 24 years old. Again, this generation is too young to remember 9/11; so far, the coronavirus pandemic appears to be their generation-defining event.

Gen Z’s parents are Generation X. This group is much different than boomers. And according to Dorsey’s research, one of the main parenting goals of Gen X was to not let their kids end up like millennials. “There is sort of this unfortunate label that millennials have of being entitled and not working ... Of course, prior to COVID-19, millennials were the largest generation in the workforce,” Dorsey said. “But it stuck.”

Unlike millennials, Gen Z only knows social media. “For many in Gen Z, they got their first smartphone or smart devices as young as 10 years old,” Dorsey said. So now there’s a generation that chooses to be entertained more on YouTube or TikTok than any of the traditional outlets.

In fact, according to Fullscreen’s recent generational study, Gen Z spends about 50 hours per week on social media. “It’s a place that makes them feel empowered and motivated, as well as a place for them to make real connections through direct messages, stories or reposting content,” Rance said.

For better or worse, Gen Z turns to the web for everything from entertainment to news. “They just come at it from a different, natural relationship with technology than other generations, even millennials,” Dorsey added.

But as much as some of us might like to hate on young people, the truth is that Gen Z is a special group of kids with the power to make a huge impact on the world.

That’s partly because the Great Recession had a major effect on Gen Z, too, but with overall positive results. Gen Z was old enough to see their parents lose jobs and houses, watch the economy crash and understand what was going on. But they weren’t in the workforce yet. “They were young enough for it to change their perspective,” Dorsey said.

As a result, Gen Z is incredibly practical with their money. “They are very much savers, more so than we could have ever expected,” Dorsey said. They’re also trying to graduate college with as little debt as possible. And they also want to know that they’re getting a good deal. “All of that fiscal pragmatism ... is highly unusual given their age,” Dorsey added.

Gen Z also has a much higher emotional connection to social causes, particularly the environment and social justice. They’re taking back what it means to be politically active and making a change for a better tomorrow, Rance said. “Even if they’re unable to vote in the upcoming election, they feel very passionate about several causes and want to make an impact by providing their voice or money to support their passions.”

They’re also the most diverse generation the U.S. has ever seen, but interestingly, also the most similar thanks to inexpensive, widely accessible mobile technology. From fashion to sports, Gen Z is sharing experiences with each other in real time and setting trends that older generations then adopt.

Gen Z is young, which means there’s still a lot to learn about what makes them tick. “But as we study them, they keep having more and more differences from millennials,” Dorsey said. “A lot of people are saying Gen Z are millennials 2.0, and they’re absolutely flat wrong.”

They’ve been raised differently, have a different relationship with technology, have a different viewpoint on money and are coming of age at a very different time than what millennials experienced.

Honestly? Gen Z is probably the most informed, responsible and hip of all the generations. So for their sake, stop confusing millennials with Gen Z.

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