Jun 4 · 7 min read

Getting your first car was once part of the quintessential American experience. It meant freedom, independence, coming of age. To Gen Xers and Baby Boomers — the two generations who entered adulthood during the mid to late 20th century — your first car was a key marker in the series of milestones that helped chart your way along the path of life. Others, like buying your first house, getting married, or retiring at 65 all played important symbolic roles across the demographic spectrum, defining what it meant to be a successful American adult.

But with Millennials now at or past the ages at which previous generations reached many of these defining moments, due to shifting economic circumstances and changing needs those of us born between 1981 and 1996 are finding value and meaning through a whole new set of turning points. Millennials, having entered the job market in a dismal recession, are buying fewer houses, getting married later, and having kids late, if at all.

If those institutions of 20th century American life are losing their stature, what is replacing them? Millennials may not be interested in driving, but we still want to be free and independent. We may not be buying houses, but we’re still looking for a sense of community. And as we have learned through our Millenniheirs project (don’t forget to check out the new podcast) many Millennials are fully aware that they are blazing a new trail. Life’s milestones are open for reinterpretation, and while some industries may be “killed” as a result, new ones are sure to arise in their place.

To learn more about the new milestones that mark the Millennial life path, we asked the Millennials in our studio to share their own perspectives on the values and meanings of key institutions celebrated by past generations, and how they are evolving today. What we uncovered was that while some milestones have been replaced, for others, our ideas of what they look like and when they happen are shifting.

Getting That First Job Quitting That First Job

To past generations, getting a first job meant the ability to make their own decisions, financial or otherwise. Having a paycheck with your name meant you could buy your own clothes, save towards a car, go on a trip, eat what you want.

Getting my first job wasn’t a milestone — it was a necessity. But having the courage to quit my first few job(s) was a milestone. Putting my self-worth over common sense and financial stability is purely generational. Finding a job that aligned with interests, and making it a priority in my life, is a huge Millennial milestone that I know my parents didn’t have the opportunity to do.”

-Wednesday Krus (Senior Designer)

Getting Married Feeling Engaged

“As an ‘elder Millennial’ I feel like marriage seemed much more important to me when I was younger. In high school and even through college, it still seemed like Americans were several generations away from accepting the idea of gay marriage. You know what they say about things you can’t have. So the idea of fighting for the right to marry was really important.

Things changed a lot faster than expected, obviously, and after the Supreme Court finally established marriage equality as the law of the land in 2015 I’ve actually become a lot less interested in the idea of marriage. I still want to find a real partner, but I don’t care as much about having a marriage license. I’m not in a hurry to do either by a certain age. Most of my friends aren’t married yet either. For me the idea of adulthood and maturity is more about being an active, responsible citizen. As grotesque as the language has become, ‘finding a sense of purpose’ seems like the best corollary for what finding a spouse used to symbolize.”

-Brendan Crain (Director of Content)

Starting a Family Timing it Right

“I’m a bit of an anomaly in New York–having grown up in Texas, I didn’t think twice about getting married right after college when I was 22 years old. I think I’m more similar to older generations in that sense; getting married was just what you did, a prerequisite to move on to the next phase of your life. But when it comes to starting a family, I feel more in line with my fellow Millennials. That feels like a much bigger decision with higher stakes and life altering consequences, where again for past generations it may have been another thing you just did, to level up and progress your life.”

-Whitney Burnett (Producer)

“I had my first baby at the age of 30 in Northeast Wisconsin. My co-workers and wonderful new adult friends threw me and baby boy McGuire a few wonderful baby showers, full of diaper cakes, sharpie decorated onesies and Bloody Mary bars. During these festive, female centric celebrations I was often asked why I waited so long to have kids.

I had my second baby at 34 in New York City. As with most second babies there were no lavish festivities, however I was lucky to have a nice party at the office, which happened to have baby gifts (thank you ThoughtMatter). That summer, very pregnant with a 3 -year-old in tow I would often go to the female centric mecca, the city parks, where I was often asked why I didn’t wait longer to have kids.

I am a parent and a millennial. And sometimes I don’t know which label gets judged more.”

-Jessie McGuire (Managing Director)

Owning the Roof Over Your Head Getting Out From Under Debt

“Buying a house as a Millennial is probably one of my biggest aspirations, outside of starting my own family, and it seems completely unachievable. Maybe when I’m, like, 50 I’ll be able to buy a house? Maybe it’s because I’ve decided to live in one of the most expensive cities, but that’s also because that’s where higher paying jobs are… Prior generations could (seemingly) easily afford a house when they were relatively young, with expenses often covered by just one person’s salary. Like, what?! How was that even possible?

Maybe the equivalent of this as a Millennial is being able to buy your own new laptop, or move to a new apartment that has a balcony that’s not a fire escape?”

-Katie Williams (Account Manager)

“My feelings about this are colored by my parents, who are of the Baby Boomer generation (born in 1950 and 1951)… For them, getting that first house was also closely tied to graduating and getting their first job. It was a transition out of academia/student life and into “real-deal adult life”, accompanied by a sense of accomplishment, independence, and a shift in responsibility. Besides that, I think it also gave them a sense of true ownership, something that was theirs together that they made happen all themselves from start to finish.

If I had to think of a milestone that symbolized those things for Millennials, I guess I’d say it’s somewhere in the ballpark of paying off student loans, or getting your credit score in the right place that it’s feasible to even consider owning property… you worked your ass off, and now you’re able to welcome and pursue bigger responsibilities in your independence from debt or bad credit.”

-Lauren Pennline (Studio Coordinator)

Getting a Watch for X Years on the Job Getting a Say

I think getting that shiny new watch for a certain number of years on the job was a symbol of career status. It meant that you’d been in the work force for a long time, that you were valued, and that you’re a “real” adult now… It meant the people you work with respected you and that you were now a “member” of this club.

As a Millennial I have mixed feelings about this one. To be honest, getting a watch for working somewhere for a set period of time feels a little like getting a participation trophy…a classic trope Millennials are always bashed for (as if little kids had control over that and it wasn’t our parents giving us the trophies). It even seems a little like a ball and chain strapped to your ankle. If my time at a company warrants recognition, I’d prefer that be rewarded as being a stakeholder/decision maker in a company with a higher title and more say in what goes on. That would make me feel more valued, proud of my capabilities, etc.”

-Katie Williams (Account Manager)

Retirement Fulfilment

A lot of people in earlier generations religiously participate in a 401k or another saving scheme, or even have jobs that provide pensions. Pensions are a sacred thing nowadays and are so rare. It seems like retirement is about people feeling like they have the freedom to discover and enjoy old/new hobbies, and the pride and relief in having ‘done their time’ and provided for their families and children.

I think for Millennials these values come from the milestone of starting their own business; they’re more associated with entrepreneurship. Financial security is not necessarily about saving money but being able to take financial risks and living in the moment. It’s about having the freedom to work when, how and where we want instead of within the restraints of a single company, and the pride and relief in ‘finding their purpose/passion’.”

-Samantha Barbagiovanni (Design Director)


Unlike previous generations, Millennial life paths and milestones don’t seem to take a linear route. Geography, demographics and life experience shift what members of this generation value and find meaning in, and when — which makes misleading the blatant generalizations that have come to define this generation. Millennials have certainly changed things. And change is scary. But it’s not always bad.

This post was written by Dylan Stiga with thinking contributed by Brendan Crain, Jessie McGuire, Shivani Gorle, Whitney Burnett, Lauren Pennline, Katie Williams, Wednesday Krus and Samantha Barbagiovanni. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.


ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective


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ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective |


ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective

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