The Socioeconomic Characteristics of Young Adults: Millennials Today vs. Boomers Then

April 2, 2018

This article is included in these additional categories:

African-American | Boomers & Older | Demographics & Audiences | Hispanic | Household Income | Men | Women | Youth & Gen X

Marketers today spend plenty of time and budget focusing on Millennials, despite Boomers presenting a more attractive financial picture. But how is that financial picture – along with other socioeconomic characteristics – different for Millennials today than from Boomers when they were their age? The Pew Research Center takes a look.

The following figures are derived from a Pew Research Center analysis of Current Population Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at different points in time. The tabulations were made in order to understand how people lived when they were ages 21-36, both then and now. Although the Pew analysis extends across generations, this article focuses on Boomers in 1985 versus Millennials in 2017.

Here are some takeaways from the report highlighting major distinctions between the two generations when they were the same ages. These are important considerations for marketers in order to understand how these generations’ experiences shape their attitudes, and are helpful to recognize when tailoring messaging to these cohorts.

Millennials Are Far More Diverse Than Boomers Were

Consistent with population estimates demonstrating increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States, the analysis shows that Millennials are far more likely to belong to a variety of racial and ethnic groups than were Boomers at their age.

Indeed, 44% of Millennials (defined as ages 21-36) last year identified as a race or ethnicity other than non-Hispanic White. The most common of the minority groups among Millennials are Hispanics, who represent 21% of people in this age group. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic Blacks comprise 13% of Millennials as of 2017.

By contrast, just one-quarter of today’s Boomers identified as a race or ethnicity other than non-Hispanic White when they were the same age, back in 1985. Unlike today, Boomers in 1985 had a higher concentration of Black adults (12% share) than Hispanic adults (10%).

Millennials Are Far Less Likely to be Married

Just 37% of today’s Millennials are married, the research shows, while 6% are separated/divorced and fully 57% have never been married.

By contrast, in 1985 a majority (56%) of today’s Boomers were married and 11% had been separated or divorced. That left just one-third (33%) who had never been married at that age.

Census data also reveals that people are getting married older. In fact, the the median age at which men are first married increased from 23.7 in 1947 to 29.5 in 2017, while the increase has been even more pronounced for women (from 20.5 to 27.4).

Previous survey data from the Pew Research Center suggests that the main reasons why Millennials haven’t yet married are the lack of financial preparation (29%), not having found someone yet (26%) and feeling too young to settle down (26%).

Millennials Are Much More Likely to be Metro-Bound

Last year 88% of Millennials lived in a metropolitan area, defined as “a core urbanized area (with at least 50,000 inhabitants) and adjacent counties with strong commuting ties.” By contrast, in 1985 a considerably smaller share (68%) of today’s Boomers were living in metropolitan areas.

This distinction has plenty of implications: adults living in urban locations, for example, are far more likely to use the internet than those living in rural areas. This influence extends to different areas such as online grocery shopping, which is far more popular in urban than rural areas. Meanwhile, urban adults tend to be better educated with higher household incomes, but also have higher poverty rates and are less likely to be insured.

Millennials Today Have Higher Household Incomes

Interestingly, despite the financial difficulties (such as student loan debt) faced by Millennials today, they have a higher median household income ($72,500) than Boomers did at their age ($59,147). (These averages have been adjusted for inflation.)

Of course, these figures don’t take into account debt or purchasing power, so they don’t mean that Millennials are better off today than young adults were back in the mid-80s.

It is worth noting, though, that the 22.5% higher household income for youth today (relative to when Boomers were young) compares favorably to the rise in national median household income, which grew by only 14% between 1985 and 2015.  In other words, the growth in young adults’ household income has outpaced the rise in median household income over the past 30 years.

Labor Force Participation Trends Differ by Gender

The extent to which young adults’ participation in the labor force has changed varies by gender. In short, it has increased for young women, while decreasing for young men. Here are some specifics:

  • While 29% of today’s Boomer women were not in the labor force when they were ages 21-36, that’s true for fewer (26%) of today’s Millennial women;
  • Correspondingly, 71% of today’s Millennial women are employed in the civilian workforce, compared to 66% of Boomer women when they were that age; but
  • Some 15% of today’s Millennial men are not in the labor force, almost twice the share (8%) of today’s Boomer men when they were the same age back in 1985; and
  • Some 79% of Millennial men today are employed in the civilian workforce, slightly below the 82% of today’s Boomer men back in 1985.

Today’s Young Adults Are More Likely to Have A College Degree

Census Bureau data shows a rise in educational attainment rates over time, so it’s no surprise that young adults are better educated today than they were 30 years ago. As with labor force participation, the trends are much more pronounced for women than for men (as women have had some ground to make up).

More than one-third (36%) of Millennial women last year had at least a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 20% of today’s Boomer women when they were ages 21-36.

Young men’s educational attainment has also risen, but not quite at the same rate: 29% of Millennial men in 2017 had at least a Bachelor’s degree, up from 22% of Boomer men when they were young adults.

Further Reading

Check out these articles for further information about demographics and socioeconomic characteristics:

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