Since 1966, the Higher Education Research Institute has been conducting a study of first-year college students to determine personal goals and values. This collection of data has offered research a chance to see how priorities change over the years, and there are striking generational differences in the results. Recent research at San Diego State University combined the data from this research with additional studies, and the results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The most striking generational difference is the change of relative importance of “being very well off financially.” 44.6 percent of baby boomers considered this goal essential or very important. Through the period when Generation X entered college, 1979 to 1999, 70.8 percent of college freshmen believed it was essential or very important to be well-off. For millennials, or Generation Y, with students entering college from 2000 to 2009, this rate increased to 74.4 percent. In 1978, being rich ranked 8th among all the goals listed as choices in the survey, and since 1989, this goal has consistently ranked first.
Other goals on the list that lost ground due to the surge in the desire for financial success above all else include developing a meaningful philosophy of life, declining in importance from 73 percent to 44 percent and keeping up with political affairs, declining from 50 percent to 35 percent. At the same time, some goals that may not be directly related to being rich increased. Creating artistic work (painting, sculpting, decorating, etc.) increased from 15.5 percent to 16.0 percent from baby boomers to millennials. Influencing social values increased from 32 percent to 40 percent.
Why are young people significantly more concerned with financial security, and if this concern is so much higher, why is financial literacy in young people lacking to such a degree as reported constantly in the media including financial blogs?
I see two significant influencers of attitudes in college freshmen. The first is a reaction from their parents’ attitudes. Baby boomers’ parents might have lived through the Great Depression, perhaps as kids. The experience of financial difficulty sticks with this generation as they mature and have families of their own. While one reaction to parents whose philosophies of money have been shaped by hardship would be to put an extra emphasis on financial independence within a family, it’s more likely that financial struggle helped people understand that there is more to life than having money, and this is the attitude that was passed down from one generation to the next.
As the baby boomers built their own success as adults and benefited from the clear economic expansion after World War II, financial success was within reach and became a new goal. Suburbs blossomed, and television opened people’s minds to consumer culture. This openness combined with the ability to earn enough money to cover more than just the necessities shifted the culture, and these attitudes weren’t unnoticed by baby boomers’ children, Generation X and millennials.
The second significant influencer is popular media. As mentioned above, the availability of television shaped American attitudes. National programs offered millions of families a glimpse into the best of what the consumer culture had to offer. It wasn’t just Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, it was the popular sitcoms that projected an idea of what life should be like in the home. I noticed during the recent recession, television programming tended to reflect more financial escapism. People seem to enjoy watching programs featuring rich and upper-middle class lifestyles, and this type of programming has flourished in recent years.
A combination of these influencers likely contributed to Generation X’s and millennials’ stronger focus on their goal of “being well off financially.” There is still a broken connection between this goal and the behaviors that help individuals reach the goal. Consumer debt is still a problem. College graduates lack understanding of basic financial principles, and often make mistakes that may or may not be corrected by the time they start families of their own. Perhaps the real goal is not being well-off, but appearing well-off. When financial independence seems out of reach, young people are willing to settle for looking or feeling rich. This is an approach focused on the surface, just appearances, rather than one based on making the tough adjustments required to fix the fundamental financial issues. It’s faster, more convenient, and outwardly identical to a point.
It’s perhaps why people who play the lottery are more likely to have low incomes, and maybe it contributes to the appearance that people living on welfare might have expensive-looking phones or other accessories; in a world without hope for financial success, the only way to satisfy the need for “being well off financially” is through objects acting as external symbols of wealth.
Published or updated March 27, 2012.