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Millennials are not who you think they are

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For the last five years, Zipcar has been conducting an annual study of the preferences of Millennials whose shifting ideas about ownership are supposed to be driving the rise of concepts like car-sharing. The survey has found that Millennials are more interested in alternative forms of transportation, that they often find car ownership a pain, that they'd more likely give up their cars than their smartphones.

If any of this sounds familiar to you and you were born, in fact, before 1980, Zipcar's survey this year homes in on a point that's likely closer to the truth: These attitudes disproportionately describe people in big cities, regardless of their age. Or, as Zipcar puts it provocatively, “non-millennial urbanites are still millennial-like.”

This year Zipcar surveyed 1,001 nationally representative adults over the age of 18 who were asked to self-identify as urbanites, suburbanites or living in rural areas (asking people to self-identify this way gets around some of the artificial distinctions between cities and suburbs according to municipal boundaries). In the results, urbanites looked a lot like millennials in their attitudes, for instance in their use of alternative forms of transportation: their desire to drive less for the environment:

...and in how essential they consider their cars:

"This solidified what we suspected for years," says Brian Harrington, Zipcar's chief marketing officer, "which is that city-dwellers of all ages really have certain lifestyles that lend themselves to trying new technology, and in particular new mobility solutions."

This isn't a surprise if you look at Zipcar's own demographics. The median age of its members globally is 36 — decidedly non-millennial. Harrington (he's not a millennial either) argues that these consumers, regardless of their age, show "a millennial mindset."

But this insight also says more about what we mean when we use the word than how 40-year-old city-dwellers behave. Often in the media (and I'll raise my hand here), we evoke the word "millennial" to describe a subset of people born after 1980 who hold college degrees and live in cities. We're not talking about 20-year-old single moms in small towns, or fast-food workers in the suburbs trying to get by on only a high school diploma.

This bias skews how we think about the entire generation, and it obscures the fact that a 28-year-old professional in the city has more in common with the 42-year-old living in the apartment next door than a 28-year-old mom who chooses to live in a subdivision. Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko made an excellent point about this writing over at 538 a few weeks ago. "Most urban neighborhoods are not Brooklyn," he wrote, "and most 25- to 34-year-olds don’t have bachelor’s degrees." As a result of conflating the two, we confuse these trends also: Millennials on the whole are not a particularly urban generation, but educated millennials increasingly are.

Zipcar's data shows some similar patterns when we break down millennials by where they live:

Zipcar's interpretation of this is that non-millennial city-dwellers are millennial-like (which makes urban millennials uber-millennial). Another way to look at it is that many of the preferences we attribute to millennials' age may ultimately have more to do with where they live.