The 20-something Dilemma

When we say "Millennial" or "Gen Y," who are we even talking about?

Yun Ma

By Yun Ma


In the recent New Yorker article “Semi-Charmed Life,” writer Nathan Heller takes inventory of all the recently published books about 20-somethings. After his massive reading effort, Heller comes away with this observation: “Many books have been written about the state of people in their 20s, and the question that tends to crop up in them, explicitly or not, is: Well, whose twenties? Few decades of experience command such dazzled interest …  and yet few comprise such varied kinds of life.”

The thing about 20-somethings is this: For a group that’s going through so many life changes, it’s hard to generalize them as, well, a group at all, if we’re talking about a united collective with cohesive similarities. As Heller points out, “Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working 60-hour weeks on Wall Street.”

From a cursory glance at my Facebook newsfeed: One friend lives in an apartment her parents pay for, while she works on a PhD dissertation. Another just quit a stable, full-time job to spend several months traveling through Bolivia, Morocco, and continental Europe. Some are processing paperwork on their first home mortgage, others are still living at home. Some wake up at six in the morning, others wake up at six in the evening.

The question of how to capture the Gen Y market seems to transfix and daze credit unions, and for good reason. How can any single marketing or business strategy cater to such a fractured demographic? How can one financial service accommodate all these varied lifestyles?

Part of the reason is that 20-somethings haven’t really decided on a lifestyle. Whether in career, marriage, or home ownership, signs indicate that they are delaying commitment on these big decisions later and later. In the seminal New York Times Magazine article “What Is About 20-Somethings?”, Robin Marantz Henig writes, “The twenties are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever.”

So if there’s any one characteristic that unites this group that goes by “Gen Y” and “Millennial”, it might be that they openly exercise their right to change their mind. If there’s anything a financial institution could do to capture such a varied group, then maybe it’s to recognize this trait, and to offer terms and plans that are flexible and easily adaptable for lives that are constantly changing.

Clearly, when it comes to 20-somethings, one approach doesn’t fit all.


Jan. 28, 2013


  • Perhaps some are really digging a new jam, but I would venture to state that most of us prefer to skip the pushy sales folks and remain off the radar. It is certainly not that we are not social, as a good portion of our population would tweet and write a Facebook status announcing to the world that we are at the mall and just bought a cute pair of shoes. However, we want that connection on our own terms; where we want and when we want it. You may think that we are spoiled, selfish, and do not understand how the world/business works. You would be right to an extent, but you would be wrong to misunderstand us. It seems that the consumer mentality of this group is not “What have you done for me lately,” but is now “What can you do for me when I want it, and will you leave me alone when I do not want it; and by the way, you have the latest technology, right?”
    Brett Slayden
  • Although it may be difficult to distinguish where a 20-something is in life, that is not necessarily the sole driving force behind behavior. Regardless of college education, living arrangement, and relationship status, 20-somethings do have similar expectations based on being brought up in the same time, environment, and technological front. As a 20-something myself, I will describe how I think about our generation: A 20-something's expectations can be summed up as available, accessible, valuable/inexpensive, and the service should be wonderful when we need it, however, when we do not need the service, we want to be left alone. Growing up in the 1990’s, we have frequently been told that we can do anything we put our minds to. Computer technology, the internet, and now mobile technology have further increased our belief in this mentality. Not only do 20-somethings believe that we as individuals can do anything, but that every convenience is feasible through these new technologies. We also expect that as soon as new technology is released, everyone should adopt it, without any thought to the costs of developing it. If Chase comes out with envelop free ATMS, then every bank and credit union did, right? If Chase can accept deposits by taking a picture of a check then every institution does, correct? If Wells Fargo allows customers to instantly send money to friends to help split a dinner check or pay for movie tickets, then I can start doing that tonight, yeah? 20-somethings want everything new, and we want it now and at an affordable price, if not for free. To complicate matters even more, we only want human contact on our own terms. When I have a problem, I expect to be able to speak with someone about it in person. However if I do not have a problem or concern, I (generally) wish to be left alone completely. Nothing shows this case to be true more than 20-somethings and ours IPods/IPhones. People our age frequently shop with headphones on.
    Brett Slayden