5 Markers Of “Success” That Are Different For Millennials & Gen-Zers

This post is brought to you by M&T Bank.

We’re partnering with M&T Bank to bring you a series of smart savings tips from real women who’ve made their money work for them — and weren’t always so savvy. We’ve always focused on bringing you personalized money success stories (and learning experiences!) because, at the end of the day, there is simply no one piece of generalized money advice that’s going to apply to absolutely everyone. That’s what we love about M&T Bank — they don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to finances, because everyone’s situation is different. They take the time to understand what’s important to their individual customers so they can help with their specific needs and goals.

When I was a kid, my two younger siblings and I loved to play The Game of Life. We’d scoot our little die-molded plastic cars around the board, following a series of prescribed milestones and collecting paychecks until we reached the finish line — retirement — and took stock of our fake-money portfolios to determine whether we’d checked all the boxes and “won.”

I played The Game of Life so many times that I suspect it played a big role in shaping many of the assumptions I had about how my life would unfold. When I was nineteen, I was sure I’d marry my then-boyfriend right after college. When I graduated, sans boyfriend, I figured I’d be “ready” for marriage at 25. At 25, still unwed, I assumed by 30 I’d own a house with a husband. And while kids have never been a fixed part of my dream future, I figured that if I did end up choosing motherhood, I’d at least be pregnant by now. 

My 30th birthday is just over six months away. I am not a wife, a mother, or a homeowner, and I have no immediate plans to become any of those things. According to the Game of Life creators, I stagnated after I got my degree. I am woefully behind. I failed.

And yet, I am incredibly happy with how my life has shaped up. I’m eager to see what the coming years hold for me, regardless of whether or not they match up with that old gameboard. And that’s the problem with The Game of Life: It was developed by a generation that was playing a completely different game than we are. 

While I haven’t played The Game of Life in a number of years, I don’t remember it accurately representing any of the new opportunities or obstacles that my generation faces. The game’s trajectory was rigged with a few freak accidents but none of the systemic challenges that are causing Millennials and Generation Zers to fall behind or the different paths we’re choosing to take. The minute we roll the dice, our journey is different — not doomed, just different.

1. College

The Game of Life lets you choose whether or not to attend college. The non-college track was shorter, but the college track meant your paychecks were much bigger. My siblings always chose the college track. And why wouldn’t we? We were raised to believe that college was a given. Not going to college was a foolish option, only chosen by friends who’d never played the game before and didn’t understand how it worked. Our view of college was informed exclusively by our parents’ experience, and we had no idea how different it would be for us and our peers.

My mother got her degree at a private college and paid her own way. Granted, she always had a job during the school year, worked two years every summer, and still graduated with debt, but she will say that her debt never felt crippling. She didn’t even fully pay it off until she and my dad were living in their second house with two children, plans for a third, and multiple great travel experiences under their belts. It was, in her words, a very different time. She even remembers there being a cap on student loan debt. She’ll be the first to admit that her generation simply did not have to think about college and student loans in the same way that our does.

As of June 2019, Americans are carrying $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt, plus over $100 billion of private student loan debt. But the numbers alone do not communicate the emotional burden of student loan debt. I know so many people who feel utterly crippled by their debt, resigned to years or decades of pauperdom, unable to start living life or saving for anything else until it’s gone. Student loan debt is like the first domino to fall, pushing back every other milestone as dictated by The Game of Life.

Unfortunately, you can’t expect to get rid of debt overnight. But what you can do is make sure you’re on a payment plan that makes sense for your income level and also allows you to live a life you enjoy. M&T Bank’s team of financial advisors are here to help you find the best debt repayment solution for your situation.

2. Finding the “Right” First Job

Next step on The Game of Life: get a job. I graduated in the middle of the recession and applied for over seventy jobs before I got an offer. The job market is far less bleak than it was back then, but anyone who has sought employment in the last few years can tell you that there are some truly outrageous postings out there. Entry-level positions that require five years of experience and barely pay a living wage are everywhere; I know someone who has a master’s degree and was making $12 an hour at a job in her field. She had to aggressively negotiate to get herself to $15 an hour (citing the fact that she wasn’t married and was in a single-income household) and still had to supplement her income by waitressing on the weekend. And this was in a city where the cost of living is quite low. 

Earlier generations could count on far more generous salaries when they first entered the job market, and without so much crippling student loan debt, that income stretched a lot farther. A single income was often enough to support a growing family, which is not necessarily a given in today’s economy. Our generation is learning to be increasingly resourceful when it comes to savvily networking our way into better jobs and finding creative side hustles to supplement our income to allow more stability as we think about our futures. Which leads to our next milestone on The Game of Life:

3. Getting Married

The Game of Life assumes that everyone is straight, identifies on a binary gender spectrum, and is interested in getting married. If I’d gotten married at the same age my parents were when they tied the knot, I’d be celebrating my third anniversary this year. Spoiler alert: I’m not even engaged. And I’m pretty average in that sense: I’ve attended a lot of my peers’ weddings in the past few years, but many of my friends remain unmarried.

There are many reasons why Americans are waiting longer and longer to get married, or choosing not to get married at all, but debt is certainly one of them. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2012, one in five adults over 25 had never been married — almost double the number of unmarried adults from 1960. And per the same report, 25 percent of today’s young adults are likely to never be married. 

Many millennials may not feel okay legally binding themselves to another person until they’ve wiped out their debt and feel they can offer a meaningful financial contribution to the partnership. Plus, who can afford to think about a wedding when they have thousands of dollars of student loan debt hanging over their head? Social media has turned weddings into a competitive sport, with each more elaborate and Instagrammable than the last, and very few people are telling the truth about how much these events cost and where that money comes from. The fanciest influencer weddings are often bankrolled by advertisers with deep pockets, and that type of funding just isn’t available to the vast majority of engaged couples and their families. And yet, with everyday weddings more heavily documented and shared than ever, there is immense pressure to make it perfect at any cost.

What you don’t see on social media are the smaller, more personal weddings my peers are planning, the turning away from the Wedding Industrial Complex and toward creative venues and meaningful details that hold value for the couple. These weddings are lovely and deeply memorable, without the anxiety of watching a down-payment-sized chunk of change disappearing in a single day. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a big white wedding, of course — it’s all about what you and your partner prioritize. And with smart planning, smaller weddings can leave extra money in the bank for other goals — such as that in my next point.

M&T Bank’s Easy Save plan lets you set up an automatic savings plan that moves money from your checking account to your savings account as often as you like, so you always stay on top of your long-term savings goals.

4. Home Ownership

Once you moved past the marriage square on The Game of Life, you and your tiny plastic spouse had to buy a house. Just like marriage, it was not an optional step in the game. It was a given. You had to do it in order to be successful and to win The Game of Life. And you had to do it with a partner.

Millennials simply cannot afford to think about homeownership in the same way that the generations ahead of us could. For some, looming student loan debt makes it an impossible or at least irrational choice. For others, it’s outside of their budget or simply not the best investment for their stage in life. There are so many factors that determine whether buying a house is a good or even accessible choice for a particular individual. And yet The Game of Life tells us you have to buy a house to move forward. There’s no option in the game for choosing to continue renting because you want the opportunity to move to a new city when opportunity strikes, opting for a simple apartment so you can live in the exciting city of your dreams, buying a house on your own before you’re married, or living at home for a while to save up for future investments and pay down outstanding debts faster. But any of these perfectly legitimate choices may be more desirable for our generation, or better options for a bright future.

If homeownership is one of your goals, it may be more within your reach than you think. Check out M&T Bank’s Learning Center and speak with one of their advisors to see if you can qualify for a mortgage and determine if buying a home is the right choice for you.

5. Having Children

In The Game of Life, the game decides when you have kids. It’s a roll of the dice, with no regard for how many you want, whether you want them at all, or the heartbreaking and non-generation-specific reality of fertility challenges. If I remember correctly, you actually receive money along with your game-ordained children, which couldn’t be further from reality. Kids are outrageously expensive from the minute they’re conceived, with some hospitals actually charging money for the moment when the new mother is allowed to hold her newborn baby for the first time. I know a couple who had to plan their family around childcare costs. Even with two incomes, they couldn’t afford to have more than two children in childcare, so they waited until their eldest was in school to start trying for their third. Some Millennials are choosing not to have children because they simply can’t afford it, which is heartbreaking.

When my parents’ third child, my brother, was born, my mom decided to stay home with us for a few years. Granted, this eliminated childcare costs, but my dad could support all five of us, plus a mortgage, regular travel, and generous philanthropy, on a single income. I’d be lying if I said my family wasn’t very fortunate and very privileged, and I know our experience does not reflect that of many, many other families. But there is an overarching trend suggesting that childrearing was far less expensive for previous generations than it is for Millennials and Gen Zers wanting to be parents. 

And yet they’re making it work. The Millennial parents I know are deeply intentional about choosing how many children they want and finding creative ways to maximize their resources so their kids can have a great life. My friends didn’t let childcare costs stop them from building the family they dreamt of. They did the math and made a plan. Their third child is adorable and will grow up surrounded by love. 

Is it Time to Declare Game Over?

As I approach my 30th birthday, simultaneously a huge and arbitrary milestone of its own right, I find myself wondering what my younger self would think if she could look up from The Game of Life and into a crystal ball to see me. My life doesn’t look anything like that gameboard. The Game of Life, the shiny, defined, clear-cut path that my younger self and I assumed my own life would follow, represents a given trajectory that is neither a given nor necessarily the goal for the children of those who developed it. The price tag and caveats attached to nearly every predetermined step of adult life in the 21st century differ wildly from the path our predecessors followed and the resources they had available, and yet we’re forging our own paths the best we can. We’re creating meaningful and rich lives for ourselves in entirely new ways, often completely at odds with what The Game of Life prescribed. Millennials and Gen Zers are striking out on our own, and as long as we have a plan, a goal, and a trustworthy financial institution to support us,we can find or generate the resources we need to prepare for and reach the milestones most important to us.

The key to achieving any important goal is to have a written plan of action. Tools like MoneySmart at M&T Bank can help you organize your resources and explore different tactics for reaching your financial goals. And when you and your trusted banker use MoneySmart together, you’ll feel confident in achieving what’s important to you.”

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To learn more about how M&T can help you reach your savings goals, visit their website or a branch near you.

© 2019 M&T Bank. Member FDIC.

Maggie Olson is a marketing professional living in northeast Ohio. She is a voracious reader, a doting house plant parent, and a hiker/biker/runner/kayaker. She’s currently on a mission to cook 30 new things before her 30th birthday. You can follow her cooking and baking adventures on Instagram at @maggieolson or find her on Twitter at @maggiebolson.

Image via Unsplash

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