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September 15, 2015

What do Boomers and Gen Y have most in common?

Both generations are struggling with their next big step — one into retirement, the other into the workforce. The parallels are remarkable.

The Canadians who make up the two largest, most influential demographic groups in the country are vulnerable to challenging identity issues, partly as a result of the weak global economy. That is the key message from a research study of the two groups led by Serra Shular of Ipsos UU.

“Millennials are in the midst of an identity crisis,” writes Shular, vice-president at Ipsos UU in her report, Two of a Kind: Millennials and the New Retiree. “Emerging from years of education, they face a world of uncertainties and seeming impossibilities — a job market they struggle to get a foot in, a housing market they feel is out of reach.”

Shular continues: “The New Retiree is also suffering from a loss of identity; in this case, from leaving a job that has defined them for years (or even decades!). After years of working daily, the transition into retirement can be scary.”

These two groups — more often viewed in sharp contrast to one another — face remarkably similar challenges. I reached out to Shular to understand more. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation:

Boomers and Millennials both face major transitions in their lives. How’s that affecting their decision-making?

With the Millennial demographic, they’re living in the moment. They’re taking advantage of the opportunities they have. Their spending is dictated according to that kind of mentality. If they have a friend who happens to be travelling in Vietnam, they’ll drop everything to try to join that friend. The implications of that are that they’re not planning for their future in terms of saving … They’re either paying off their existing student debt or they’re spending to take advantage of life and the opportunities that life has to offer to them.

How much of that is simply where they’re at in life? Young people tend to think mostly about the here and now.

One of the key differences that I feel sets them apart is this whole idea of helicopter parenting. The Boomers are guilty — for lack of a better word — of creating this generation that has become very dependent on their parents. Parents are helping their kids in as many ways as possible … It’s made that generation unable to fend for itself. As a result, they haven’t fully launched into adulthood. One person said to me: “I never learned how to live life. I need to take a course called Live Life 101.”

The key insight from your study is that Baby Boomers are facing the same kind of angst ahead of retirement that Millennials are facing as they try to launch their careers.

There’s this fear about finding purpose in retirement. Boomers raised their kids, went to work, paid down their mortgage. Once that’s all gone, they’re left with a sense of “What do I do now?” It’s much easier for those who had interests while they were in the working world, be it gardening, volunteer work or maybe even a hobby like playing the guitar. But for those who were all work and no play, or who defined themselves with their work, they are struggling with “Who am I now?” The parallel is that Millennials are saying, “Who am I?” Their identity crisis is driven by having to choose the right line of work.

How does all this play out over the next 10 years?

[Boomers and Millennials] are going to be living more experience-rich lives. Materialistic things are just not on their radar … There’s this growing sense of the need to have memories and experiences. For both these groups, there will be less acquisition of items and more trying to find those experiences and living in the moment.

Does the thought of two or three decades in retirement leave you feeling a bit anxious? It does me, and I suspect I’m in good company. For many, figuring out how to fill their golden years with meaningful experiences carries great significance. The fact that Boomers share this with Generation Y may be coincidental. I think we can see it as a fortunate coincidence, though, to the extent that it helps us understand the stress that younger Canadians continue to experience in today’s economy.

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