Millennials: A Generational Shift in Values

November 10, 2014 | By: Jessie Gould | 2 min read

Do millennials value material things?


A Swedish photographer named Sannah Kvist took photos of millennials posing with the entirety of their possessions. Check them out. Notice how small the collections are, often fitting easily into a corner even though most of the participants are now exiting the typical college years.

What might be surprising is these images are not unusual in the least. In comparison to past generations, millennials seem to exhibit a strong aversion to collecting material goods even after their dorm days are over. Social media feeds abound with images of minimalist decor, dreams about traveling, gripes about living in their old bedroom at the parents’ house, and inspirational phrases like “collect moments, not things."

Why is this? One might look at the fact that millennials started looking for jobs in the middle of a global recession. That’s a strong factor. Then let’s look at some other well-known millennial mentalities: “We can be anything we want to be” (told to us by our parents). “We can express our personalities with our belongings.” “Sharing resources is environmentally sustainable.” “Don’t settle for a job you don’t love.” “All college kids are poor.”

Suddenly it makes sense why millennials don’t buy fancy new cars and big houses full of expensive furniture. There’s even a strong romanticism in avoiding those things, to be the person who can slip from one apartment to the next with just the basics in tow.

But what is valuable to a millennial?

Look closely at Kvist’s photos. Here’s the link again. Notice anything?

The participants were in charge of arranging their possessions themselves, hiding some in the back while letting others stand more prominently. In nearly every image, the participant put their computer toward the front. Clustered around the electronics are artifacts from hobbies: old cameras, guitars, gym equipment and the like.

For millennials, value lies in utility and personal expression. They’re a transient bunch right now, so the few things they invest in have to be highly useful (computers, multi-purpose furniture) or else connected closely to the individual’s personal passions. On the whole, value does not lie in mere wealth, a fashionably-decorated home, or a normal family life with 2.5 kids. A millennial might view those things as nice to have, but they are not major motivators.

Value is in the eye of the beholder

Millennials are entering and progressing in their careers. Although they are making more money, the utilitarian mentality will continue. They will not physically spread out into big homes and big cars – at least, not to the extent that past generations have. The number of goods and the amount of space desired by a millennial might remain relatively constant, but the quality of those goods and that space will be held to a higher standard as their buying power grows. It’s the iPhone phenomenon – same phone, constant upgrades.

For this generation, the quality, not quantity holds very true.

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