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Millennials really are different, data shows

Washington

ANY TIME we cover generational trends, the overwhelming reader response is that millennials aren't different: They're passing through the same phases as other generations, but a hysterical media is interpreting each stage as a groundbreaking consumer trend.

When they're 20, the theory goes, millennials were said to not be having children. But it wasn't because they were 20, an age at which few Americans procreate, it was because they were millennials and they were special. Now that many are in their 30s, we write that millennials have discovered single-family homes. But isn't that just what happens when you get older? Didn't Generation X and the baby boomers go through the same stages?

The data says no. We're getting a better picture of millennials as the bulk of the generation is near 30. All the major life milestones - marriage, children, homeownership - have arrived measurably later for millennials than for the three previous generations for which we have comparable data.

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Not all reported millennial trends are backed up by data. Video games aren't keeping millennials out of the workforce, and the workers are not hopping jobs at a higher rate, according to American University economist and serial millennial myth debunker Gray Kimbrough. But millennials' progress through life has been measurably slowed by the Great Recession, a two-track labour market in which many high-paying jobs require a college education, and record levels of student debt.

  • Marriage: When you look at how quickly Americans hit major life milestones, sorted by year of birth, it's easy to spot the millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). The marriage rate for Americans born between 1981 and 1985 didn't top 50 per cent until they were between 30 and 32 years of age. The oldest baby boomers hit the 50 per cent mark at about age 22.

We don't have data for younger millennials yet; the figures are derived from the Labor Department's Current Population Survey. Specific birth dates aren't supplied, so birth years have been estimated.

  • Children: The age at which most Americans have a child living at home has also risen during the millennial era. It's at 31 or 32 for the 1981-1985 crew. The oldest groups of boomers hit that milestone at 25 or 26.
  • Homeownership: It took until 33 to 35 for most older millennials to become homeowners. The oldest groups of boomers hit that milestone at 28 or 29.
  • Why did it take so long?: Education is one explanation for the millennial stagnation. The trends above look different when you split the generation into those with a bachelor's degree and those without.

Figures for educated millennials are similar to those for educated boomers or Generation Xers, albeit a bit lower. But less-educated millennials lag behind their educated peers, and behind less-educated members of earlier generations.

Millennials are the most-educated generation on record. The education divide was wider than any other split we considered. That includes high income vs low income, urban vs rural and white vs minority. WP