Although millennials and Gen Z’ers diverge in economic, political, and social attitudes, the two are frequently lumped together in discussions regarding the politics of the youth. Understanding the differences can significantly aid free marketers on how to adjust messaging to effectively appeal to each generation.
Millennials qualify as individuals born from 1981 – 1996 which makes the generation currently 24 – 40 years old. Gen Z’ers, on the other hand, were born between the years of 1997 – 2015 and are currently 6 – 24 years old.
Millennials grew up during an economic boom; Gen Z’ers largely grew up during a recession. Millennials remember the creation of the smartphone, believing they would inherit a glorious future. Gen Z’ers never knew life without the world in their pockets, accepting life as what is presented through the screen. Parents of millennials told their children to “dream big”; parents of Gen Z’ers anxiously watch their children’s mental health.
As millennials entered the workforce with crushing student debt during a recession, unable to buy homes or start families, reality jaded their idealism. And Gen Z’ers just laugh at the grievances of their older counterparts: what other, happier future could be expected?
Childhood experiences impact economic, social, and cultural habits later in life, which has resulted in two very different generational outlooks on life.
For example, although Gen Z is nihilistic, it is also pragmatic, focused on investing and saving. Growing up in a time of economic pressure, with many even witnessing their parents struggling to make ends meet, shaped Gen Z’s economic habits.
Idealistic millennials, on the other hand, tend to “live in the moment”. Rather than investing in the future, millennials spend on experiences.
Whether due to economic disappointments or attraction to the impossible vision of socialism, millennials are progressive. Conventional wisdom teaches that as generations age, they begin to drift right. But the opposite has occurred for millennials as more have moved to the left with age.
Gen Z, on the other hand, still largely resides on the left, but to a lesser degree than millennials. Recent studies show that Gen Z’ers are even moving to the right as they age.
So how can all this differentiation help effectively deliver a market-based message to each generation?
In my view, economic arguments simply do not work on millennials. While emphasizing the deficit and big government worked wonders in Reagan’s era, the tactic fails miserably with millennials. After having faced not one but two “once in a lifetime” economic crises while in the workforce, many stopped believing in capitalism. As socialists, many millennials believe the notion that money as a commodity is unnecessary to the functioning of society. Therefore, if money is just a capitalist construct, then resistance to raising the minimum wage, new welfare programs, or single-payer healthcare just makes you heartless.
Millennials are latching onto socialism in larger numbers because of the hope it brings, but it is misplaced hope. To reach them, I believe free marketers must prioritize portraying the holistic, beautiful vision of free markets and conservatism. One potentially effective approach is speaking in terms of how many people a policy will help, rather than how much money a policy will save, as explicated in Arthur Brooks’ book The Conservative Heart. Furthermore, in my opinion, instead of harping aged catchphrases like “small-government,” free marketers should illustrate the natural fulfillment family life bears compared to the cold isolation city pods produce. This can be accomplished through a messaging centered on regaining individual control in life without lecturing on economic habits. Millennials may come around to better financial decisions, but they must learn for themselves through experiencing the beautiful life conservatives and free marketers promote.
Economically minded strategists needn’t despair, as Gen Z may be more receptive to free market arguments. Because Gen Z focuses on success and financial security, right-leaning college clubs should consider offering seminars on building businesses or investing in conjunction with ongoing programming. Many Gen Z’ers have yet to enter the workforce: we may yet see a significant move to the right among Gen Z.
Due to the nihilistic absurdism Gen Z embraces, using satire to expose the lunacy of policies or ideologies works well. Strategists should invest in younger employees who understand memes. Of course, absurdism only goes so far, but as the financially minded generation ages, I expect they will seek to understand why some economic policies garner success over others.
There is much more yet to be unpacked, but a proper (albeit generalized) understanding of underlying motivations for each generation can aid in better messaging approaches.
McKenzie Richards is a development associate at the Pacific Research Institute.