The young and broke millennial was cast in the spotlight several months ago following comments from Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul who said that over 40% of millennials in the country are spending beyond their means. A slow but perilous path to financial ruin strewn with avocado toast, online shopping splurges and syrupy frappuccinos.
As a millennial myself, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly triggered by these headlines. I’d like to think that I’m a functioning young adult who is responsible. But I guess what irked most millennials was to be painted with a broad brush.
Still, it’s something I ruminated over and asked if we’re really that terrible at managing our finances. And what I realised is that millennials as well as any generation really (e.g. Gen X, baby boomers) are products of their environment and the times they lived in.
Our relationship with money goes beyond the personal, shaped by experiences that are distinctly our own. A millennial like myself who grew up around low interest rates and relatively benign inflation (despite our protests of price increases at the local mamak) will certainly not be conditioned to save as much as someone who grew up in 1974 when inflation was at its highest in Malaysia at over 17%.
If we go further back to a generation who lived through World War II and the Malayan Emergency, during times of great scarcity the need for savings was even greater. My late grandfather was frugal to a fault and never spent anything on himself beyond the bare necessities.
Whether anyone wants to admit it, millennials are also inheriting a fractured capitalist and hyper commercialised system that encourages debt and excess. Easy access to credit and ‘attractive’ low interest rates are pushing millennials off a cliff into a debt spiral with multiple credit cards, smartphone instalment plans and personal loans.
There are obvious commercial reasons why credit cards and personal loans are pushed as much as possible because of the higher margins and fees. From an economic perspective, some thinkers also see the increase in household debt as positive to fuel consumption and growth.
But for millennials growing up in the digital age being fed a constant diet of marketing ads and WhatsApp messages on the latest deals, it can be tricky terrain to manoeuvre. Financial language has evolved and marketers are more sophisticated in their targeting now.
It is a stretch to expect all millennials with different levels of financial literacy to understand what a debt covenant or the base rate (BR) is, many of whom are unlikely to stand a chance against entrenched business and commercial interests.
YOLO to FOMO
Another stark difference that separates millennials from past generations is the ubiquity of technology and social media which has changed behavioural norms. The study of digital anthropology has been neatly summarised into two internet slangs over the years.
First it was YOLO, which stands for “you only live once”. Now it’s FOMO or the “fear of missing out” which is that crippling feeling of anxiety you get from not being with the ‘in’ crowd.
It sounds petty, but the significance of FOMO is more than just cultural. It has real meaning for millennials to be seen and accepted as well as intrinsic properties of validation. Friends would gawk and tell me how jealous they were about someone on holiday in France or the Caribbean.
Of course, keeping up with appearances is not something unique only to the millennial generation. However, it has certainly been magnified to pixel proportions where anything that is not picture-perfect is unacceptable.
This often translates to bad money decisions that millennials end up spending to please others as opposed to for themselves. And you end up with unnecessary purchases without realising that most influencers on social media are sponsored by corporations with deep pockets.
It is indirect, but cultural attitudes and how society views money is also shifting. It used to have a primarily utilitarian purpose as a medium of exchange to buy goods or services. But now we cannot even see money with the advent of online payments.
So, what is money for now then? Unfortunately, years of generational baggage and past obsession with wealth has not led to great examples. Materialism and excess have become idealised models of success throughout the course of history.
Money gets things done. And you do not need to be successful, but rather just look successful. These are deemed as accepted ‘realities’ of life where someone on the street is literally invisible if they do not have a cent to their name. Money makes you seen and noticed. This allure of wealth then leads many of us astray through rash investment decisions with promises of a quick buck. Even worse, some take the crooked path because they are too greedy.
The world is changing but most millennials I know are adapting well. We are tough, savvy and have become more empowered consumers. Importantly, our values are also changing with a new generation of investors more conscious about aligning purpose and profits.
Obviously, my experience with money is not definitive and can apply to anyone especially those living on the fringes. There are very real systemic issues concerning inequality, access and education that has to be considered towards policy formulation to ensure every young Malaysian gets a fair shot in life. But certainly, some empathy and understanding of the unique socio-cultural and technological changes that millennials go through is needed, as opposed to common wealth platitudes.
About the Author
Lee Sheung Un is a communications officer at Affin Hwang Asset Management. A millennial, he is still finding that balance between wealth, freedom and purpose. Views expressed are his own.