Tuesday 06 Jun 2023
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This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 26, 2022 - October 2, 2022

There is a funny but oh-so-stinging meme comparing the lives of millennials with that of their parents at the age of 30. 

For baby boomers, it was about making adult decisions and crossing out a checklist of life’s milestones. They thought about buying a house, having a baby and planning for retirement. Very serious grown-up stuff. 

For present-day millennials like myself who are pushing 30, however, it is about deciding to get a plant, being awestruck at an air fryer or (a more recent one) buying their second Bored Ape NFT.

At the turn of the 21st century, millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) were hailed as the generation of progress and potential that would usher in a new era. 

Fast forward to today, most millennials would probably tell you that they are struggling with work burnout, paying off their student debts and trying to meet societal expectations of what it means to be a “grown-up”. 

The perception is that you have not really reached the peak of modern adulthood if you do not have your own place or a solid career that pays you at least a five-figure salary or are not married with kids.

Wedged between the highest inflation levels seen in decades as well as stagnant growth in wages, the common refrain is that millennials just cannot afford to pursue these traditional markers of adulting success.

But who gets to define what it means to be a happy, thriving and well-functioning adult member of society, anyway? 

Millennials are reimagining and rewriting the script of what the dream financial future is supposed to look like. Choosing flexibility over stability and freedom over security, many prefer to take the road less travelled, prioritising their independence to choose their own path, as opposed to being tied down, be it financially or otherwise. 

Indeed, conversations with my peers about wealth often yield fascinating interpretations of what the term even means. Wealth is increasingly defined by more than just the number in your bank account or the assets you own. 

It is about discovery of and accumulating new experiences. It is about broadening your horizons and expanding your world view. It is about being in full control of your time and having the autonomy to decide whatever you want to do for the day. 

That is what wealth means today to the “lost” generation, who find it exceedingly difficult to achieve the same financial strides that past generations have made.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a key culprit that has tipped the scales and set millennials back in terms of economic and financial opportunities. After all, entering our 30s was supposed to be a rite-of-passage into our prime golden years to maximise our earnings potential while still being in the pink of health. 

Instead, we were placed under lockdown for two years in the midst of a harrowing pandemic that still does not have an end date. Now, we also have to contend with another seismic recession, whose full impact is just beginning to unfurl. Economists and governments are warning us to tighten our belts and prepare for austerity measures. 

Millennials can’t catch a break, can we?

Still, this is a generation that is imbued with resilience. Straddling between the old world and the new, millennials have adapted again and again to their environment despite whatever new technology, financial crisis or hybrid work arrangement gets thrown in our way. 

A rare openness to discussing things such as money and finance, which were topics once considered taboo by our parents, also colours the new attitudes of millennials, who cherish meaningful connections. 

Social media and technology have been key enablers in empowering this movement and spurring millennials all over the world to pick up financial literacy and learn how to start investing. 

There are countless Reddit forums, Telegram channels and Twitter threads dedicated to personal finance that are brimming with real-life anecdotes and experiences on how people have overcome their worst financial breakdowns. Over time, these platforms even become an actual community providing support and encouragement. 

Of course, millennials are far from a homogenous mass. Our goals and dreams would inevitably diverge as we ourselves change. 

But whether it is retiring early, having a family or being in control of your time, thankfully, the principles to arrive at these destinations are the same. 

It starts with sound financial planning, keeping a long-term perspective and creating margins of safety to fall back on. 

Lee Sheung Un is an assistant manager of content & communication at Affin Hwang Asset Management. He previously worked as a producer for a business radio station. As a millennial, he is till finding the balance between wealth, purpose and passion. Views expressed are his own.

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