The Millennial Myth?
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
Born between the years of 1980-2000, the millennial generation seems to be a common topic of discussion in the news as of late - specifically in relation to their food purchasing and eating habits.
Recent population estimates in the US suggest that millennials have now surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation. Not only do millennials now make up the majority of the workforce, they are also the largest segment of consumers making purchasing decisions, giving them increased market influence.
Thus, it has become increasingly important for the food industry to better understand millennial food purchasing habits and preferences.
The Millennial Food Budget
To begin, it is interesting to consider the factors that might influence how millennial food budgets are allocated. A recent CBC article surveyed a handful of millennials living in downtown Toronto about their food purchasing habits. Respondents claimed to be spending anywhere from $500 to $1000 a month on food. These numbers may initially sound high (and perhaps these estimations are indeed higher given the price tag associated with living and eating in a big city) but even for myself living in Guelph, once I start adding up food expenses, this number becomes far from being impossible.
However, there is a difference between it being easy and convenient to spend a great deal on food, and it being actually affordable and realistic – especially for a generation carrying significant student debt.
In this case, it seems saving money on food may be easier said than done. Time-starved millennials prioritize convenience over most other things. With the abundance of food apps, convenience is now available at the touch of a button. The hassle of grocery shopping and food prep can now be mitigated using food apps like Uber eats and Skip the Dishes. Or, for those seeking a close second to home-cooked, meal-kit delivery services are now a dime a dozen.
However, we cannot blame solely the omnipresence of food delivery apps. There are certainly several other factors at play here.
As we have discussed in previous blog posts, cooking skills and knowledge have been on the decline. Younger generations raised in an era without home economics courses teaching basic cooking skills and often with parents unable to cook themselves, may struggle to prepare even basic meals.
Although more expensive than home cooking, for some dining out may be the only option to feed themselves once out on their own.
Cooking for one?
Personally I know some people who since they live alone, prefer to order take-out or purchase pre-prepared meals whenever possible. Not only do they feel uninspired to cook only for themselves on a regular basis, they will actually argue that it can be cheaper to dine out – especially if you consider how much time it takes to shop, prep, cook and eat. Furthermore, grocery stores tend to sell food products in bigger packages than these individuals believe they can finish before it goes bad. Wanting to avoid waste, dining out feels like the best all-around option.
Fear of Missing Out
Part of a convenient lifestyle is incorporating some degree of flexibility into your schedule. If a tempting social proposition arises, who wants to opt out in favour of heading home to warm up leftovers? Although sitting out these experiences may result in more money in your pocket at the end of the month, for some this trade-off is not worthwhile (or perhaps, simply not considered).
Marketing to Millennials
Several popular press articles and books have profiled millennials as having a specific food-demand profile. Millennials have cultivated a “food movement” by placing a premium on the food they eat. Although they do it in a manner different from previous generations, millennials are more purposeful with their food increasingly placing greater attention and value on the food they eat.
This has resulted in different sought-after food attributes than previously observed.
In our most recent Food Focus Podcast episode with Christina Crowlie-Arklie, Christina suggests that when it comes to purchasing decisions, millennials are prioritizing trust over truth. Rather than researching the science behind different products or agricultural practices, millennials are asking trusted family members and friends for advice.
In their food purchasing quest, research suggests that millennials are searching for three things; value, quality and price. The majority of their research into a product is done before shopping and as such, they tend to rely less on in-store services when making a purchase. This phenomenon may be yet another factor contributing to an increase in online shopping and decrease in brick and mortar popularity.
What is the reality?
Although some claims may be exaggerated, the truth is likely a less extreme version of what we hear in the news. At times, academic articles can help to unveil the shades of grey in topics like these.
A recent article published in the Journal of Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy sought to better understand whether young people today are really all that different from young people several decades ago. Certainly, we can all agree that it makes little sense to compare a millennial in their mid-20’s to a baby boomer in their 60’s. If we do, we risk confusing what authors refer to as the “millennial effect” with the “age effect”.
The article titled "What to Eat When Having a Millennial over for Dinner" is worth a read if you have access to it. Unsurprisingly, their results are far less sensationalized than what the press might have us believe.
After comparing purchasing habits between 1980 and 2015, authors found the following;
Younger consumers relative to older consumers spend more of their food budget on eating out and prepared meals,
Consumers over the age of 18 are purchasing more fresh fruit and vegetables, but also more frozen and prepared meals and snack foods,
Millennials spend a larger share of their total food income on meat (beef, pork, poultry), eggs, cereal and fresh fruit.
The most surprising result was the last; a positive and significant purchasing increase in the three meat categories. As a hypothesis, perhaps the estimates of increasing vegetarians, vegans and/or flexitarians are not actually as high as previously thought. Even more likely, it is possible that the price of meat has gone down enough to allow younger people to afford it more easily.
Ultimately, changing consumer preferences place added pressure on many food and agricultural companies to reinvent themselves. However, is this really any different from previous generations?
Perhaps millennial food demands are more difficult to meet; low-cost while remaining high-quality. However, according to the article’s authors (and I would tend to agree), the uniqueness of the millennial generation is likely over-exaggerated.
Recommended citation format: Gallant, M. “The millennial myth?”. Food Focus Guelph (27), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, May 13th, 2019.