Millennials last year became the country’s largest living generation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At 83.1 million they have surpassed the 75.4 million baby boomers in the United States. The growth of the millennial population is accelerating as a result of immigration.
Millennials — the demographic cohort defined by the U.S. Census as covering individuals born between 1982-2000 — are poised to become among the most impactful generations. American millennials are the best-educated and most diverse population of young people in U.S. history. Sometimes dubbed the “children of the great recession,” they are changing the patterns of material consumption in America in distinct ways. They have turned their noses on the conspicuous American culture of oversized homes, individual cars, bigger spaces, and embraced community over individuality, experience over material accumulation — profound shifts from previous generations.
Indian American millennials are at something of a crossroads of the paradigm shift. In contrast to their immigrant parents, who often were busy finding a foothold in an alien land, the new generation of Indian Americans are more confident of their finances and willing to splurge in ways their parents would scarcely have imagined.
Manoj Pardasani, senior associate dean at the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University, says: “The millennial generation possesses values that might be somewhat different than their parents. Many of their parents are first-generation immigrants who came to the US for better economic and social prospects. Their values were focused on hard work, academic success, building networks and accumulating material wealth (home ownership, possessions, etc.). That represented American values and denoted (for the parents) success in a new country.
“The millennial generation has grown up with those values, but has simultaneously been exposed to other values in their interactions with the greater community. Their focus is on personal fulfillment that encompasses emotional, social, and spiritual growth. That is not to say that they do not value academic and economic success — they do. But those are seen as components of a larger picture — a meaningful, transformative and global wellbeing.”
Indian Americans are amongst the most highly educated and affluent racial group in the United States, with nearly double the median income of average American households, according to Census data. Fewer than 8 per cent of Indian Americans live in poverty, compared to 13 percent nationally. The stronger financial profile has given younger generation Indian Americans the confidence to pursue hobbies and creative endeavors that their parents might have eschewed.
Akanksha Anand, a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at Fordham University, takes weekly flute lessons in Manhattan, has enrolled in a salsa dance program and maintains a fund for international travel. She says: “I spend on things that add to my experience rather than collecting material wealth. I also have a social interaction budget. That’s the amount I spend to go out for coffee or lunch outings with people from various walks of life. I like meeting acquaintances from different professions at least once a week as it gives me a new perspective about jobs and professions I am not primarily engaged in.”
Her social status is not reflected in her possessions, she says: “If I want I can buy a fancy car, but to me it’s the utility that matters. So when it comes to spending say a $100 on a Michael Kors watch, I would rather invest in two classes of my flute lessons.”
The fact that Indian American millennials may be making radically different financial choices than their parents, despite having ingrained values, such as saving up for a house or for further studies, presents an interesting paradox. It’s a trait they seem to share with their American counterparts. Pardasani says, “Young immigrants are focused on building lives and careers as soon as they arrive in the US. But those who were born here are not in any rush to ‘establish’ or ‘succeed’ in the traditional sense.”
According to TD Bank’s Consumer Spending Index, while millennials make more discretionary purchases, they still spend less money than the average American. A Consumer Spending Index poll found that millennials spent more money on retail and dining, but less money overall. So, while millennials dined out an average of 13 times per month, spending up to $103 monthly, they also grabbed food or coffee on the go nearly 11 times per month. Curiously, while the earlier generations (baby boomers and Gen Xers) ate out only half as frequently, they ended up spending more money on monthly expenses at nearly $139 and $123 respectively, according to the index.
So, are the millennials shrewder with the money they spend, or are they delaying important stabilizers, such as house and family, to pursue their “dream” lifestyle? Pardasani says: “I do believe the millennial generation will also focus on wealth-generation and home ownership, but perhaps later in life than their parents. They view it as their right to first explore their own selves. In other words, they want to focus on self-actualization before they take on more traditional norms of life.”
Creative But Careful?
Neeta Shah, a music teacher in Nashville, Tenn., says that unlike her American friends who are tighter with money as compared to their earlier generation, young Indians spend more generously than their parents.
Shah, who maintains an all-organic kitchen, says that her immigrant parents mostly relied on frozen and tinned food as quick and cheap alternatives. By contrast, she says: “I definitely spend a lot more on my food choices. For my parents’ Whole Foods was never a weekly grocery stock-up store. When we ate out occasionally it was either the most popular fast food joints or a specialty Indian restaurant. Today when I look for vegan items in fine dine eateries it surely comes as a new experience to them.”
Many Indian millennials, like their American counterparts, are partial to organic, fair-trade, farm-fed and gluten-free items in their kitchen shelves, which is boosting the health food category. The U.S. organic market saw record sales last year of $43.3 billion, an 11 percent increase from 2014.
Shah describes the new Indian American spending habit as “wisely selective.” The terms finds resonance in Nielsen’s recent report titled, Asian Americans: Culturally Connected and Forging the Future. According to the report, Asian Americans value high-quality products and services. They spend significantly more on foods promising holistic health and are 31 percent more likely to consume organic foods.
Chitrangada Sethi, who works as a yoga instructor in Seattle, says that many of her financial decisions have been diametrically different from her parents: “When we got married, my husband was pursuing an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The elders wanted me to join a similar program too, but I wanted to learn Iyengar Yoga in USA, which was not only expensive, but also a non-traditional career route. But instead of saving for a house we decided to save for my yoga classes that was $3,500 a month.”
The personal pursuit is important for Sethi: “After my pregnancy I got a personal trainer for my workouts, which came at $600 for every ten sessions. This again was expenditure towards my personality enhancement. Something my parents’ would not have done for themselves.” She adds: “My husband and I have signed up for a running group and have also hired a racing coach to look at our gait, teach us how to cool down and warm up and take control of our bodies. At $1,200 a month this may sound hedonistic, but for us it is every penny worth spent.”
Millennials are often ridiculed as the latte sipping crowd that is is extravagant with money. But then the National Resources Defense Council reports that Americans waste $165 billion annually in unconsumed food and, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, spend $70 billion on lottery tickets every year.
Sethi says: “While we have done everything from hiking holidays to being on a road trip when our baby was just 3 months, but all our expenses have been planned. Our spending patterns may be different from our parents but it’s not that we do not have an emergency account.”
According to Anand, who teaches social policy, the reason for this shift in spending patterns could be attributed to globalization.
She says: “On a macro level, in a globalized world everything becomes so easy and accessible that you want to try things you haven’t done before. Youngsters are not just eating out more, but also experimenting with various cuisines. It’s so common in our times to meet a Japanese and say hey you are from Japan. I love sushi. It’s all part of our popular culture. I began eating Korean because my doctoral friend is a Korean.”
So does that mean the young prefer more communal interactions? Priti Saldanha, who commutes from her home in Edgewater, NJ, to New York City for work, says, “I prefer to take a public transport over my car any day as I get to watch and chat with people.”
She adds: “I spend money on my dinner outings with a group of friends. We do enjoy exotic eateries, but our conversations are never about who bought the new fancy car, but about issues like climate change, the Palestinian problem, etc. For many millennials a stimulating conversation with friends at a nice place that can be posted on social media is the new way to live a cool life.”
Pooja Gupta, who runs a kids play and dance franchise in Jersey City, came to the United States as an infant with her parents. She says: “A few years ago I left my work at the height of my career to pursue a ten day long Vipassana course. For my dad to give up a career mid-way for a meditation program would sound like a sabotage, but for me I rediscovered myself and came back with a focused vision and set my business.”
Could peer pressure be driving the millennial generation? After all travel and food posts on social media are carefully curated and followed. The millennials defend social media framing as inspirational, not aspirational.
Anand says: “My mentors at college have all been to 60-70 countries. It’s an inspiration because travelling opens up your vistas like nothing else.”
Gupta agrees: “I take holidays 4-5 times in a year. It may sound like a lot, but it’s a way to learn more.”
Often the experiences are varied, as they avoid the touristy routes and look for offbeat experiences. Saldanha says: “I always travel in large groups and make friends with new people. I find a lot of my friends doing this and this is different from insular holidays we took as kids with our families.”
The itineraries are varied too. Saldanha recently took an art deco tour, a boat trip in Miami and a Mardi Gras exploration to New Orleans. Top Deck Travel, a group travel tour operator catering to people in the ages of 18-30s, recently surveyed 31,000 people from 134 different countries. It found that 86 per cent of those polled said that they traveled to discover local culture and cuisine. Peer pressure was evident, as 76 per cent said that friends’ recommendation and social media posts were important in determining their travel choices.
Growing numbers of Americans are also turning to volunteerism. According to Millennial Impact Report by the research group Achieve, 70 percent of millennials dedicated an hour volunteering for a cause, 45 percent participated in company volunteer day, 32 percent used paid time off to volunteer and 16 percent used unpaid time off to volunteer.
Saldanha says: “I try to balance one or two unpaid gigs with my regular job. Right now I am volunteering as an assessor with Forest Kids. It’s an initiative that takes children to Central Park in New York City and lets them explore their surroundings. Another one engages young to teach technology to the older generation to help them survive in the tech savvy world.”
Public perceptions of millennials are mixed, however. A 2014 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll found that 65 percent of respondents describe millennials as entitled, and 70 percent as selfish. However, 55 percent believe that they are hardworking and responsible.
Gupta says: “Most of the new generation people I know are smarter with their money. A lot of them pay emphasis on sensible investments and creating money. If we spend a little on luxuries and creative pursuits it only enhances our experience.”
Since millennials had a brush with recession early in their lives, they have learnt shrewd lessons in personal finances.
Gupta says, “Most youngsters I see are serious about creating wealth by way of setting investments and small businesses.”
However, Pardasani is not as sure: “I am sure that the experience of downsizing and psychological stress plus economic hardships may have had an impact on their values and beliefs. It played a smaller role than we think. I believe it is the evolution of generational thinking, re-calibration of what defines success and an increased focus on personal selves in this ‘me-generation.’ I believe this generation has been socialized to be more giving, politically, culturally and socially more conscious and globally-tuned-in. There is greater awareness and connectedness with the larger world — literally and conceptually. This has shaped their worldview and their interests.”