Archive for April, 2017

Americans value money and brains over looks

We recently posed a question on a national poll which required Americans to make an interesting choice:

If you could have one of the following, which would you choose?

  • I would have more money than I have today
  • I would be smarter than I am today
  • I would be better looking than I am today

This is a provocative cocktail party question. How would you answer it? How might your answer change depending on your life stage – would you answer it differently 15 years ago or 15 years into the future?

Across all ages (18+), 61% of Americans choose more money. It would be interesting to pose this question internationally to learn if this finding reflects American culture and capitalism or if this result reflects something universal to all people. Overall, 26% of US adults choose being smarter and 12% choose being better looking. So, it can be said that Americans value money and brains over looks.

We should note that there wasn’t a gender difference in the results. Males and females were just as likely to say all three options. There were a couple of interesting racial differences. Hispanics were least likely to say they would like more money and most likely to say they would like to be smarter. Blacks were as likely as others to say “money” but were more likely than others to say “better looking” and less likely to say “smarter.”

But, by far the largest and most interesting differences in this question related to the generation of the respondent. We’ve seen the Millennial generation maligned quite a bit recently, hearing that they are entitled and a bit lazy. We’ve never quite believed that, as the perception that a youth generation is disrespectful and lazy has been true since before the term “generation” was coined.

For instance, this is a quote from Socrates, and is about 2,400 years old:

“Children today are tyrants.  They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Mark Twain, late in his life, had this to say about children:

“When a child turns 12 you should put him in a barrel, nail the lid down, and feed him through a knot hole… When he turns 16, plug the hole.”                                              

One of the more cynical (and unintentionally humorous) quotations about children came from Clarence Darrow, almost a century ago:

“The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents and the second half by our children.”

But, back to our poll question.  There are currently five living generations:

First birth year

Final birth year Current youngest member

Current oldest member

Silent

1925

1942 75

92

Boom

1943

1960 57

74

Gen X

1961

1981 36

56

Milllennials

1982

2004 13

35

Homelanders 2005 2017 0

12

Which one do you think would be the most apt to choose “more money” in our question? We’d presume that most people would predict it would be Millennials. But, in reality, it is Boomers who are most likely to say money:

More Money Smarter Better Looking
Silent

54%

37%

9%

Boom

71%

19%

11%

Gen X

65%

26%

10%

Milllennials

52% 31%

17%

There are fascinating generational differences in this table.  Howe and Strauss have developed an excellent generational theory, and one aspect of it is that a generational cycle recurs through four archetypes. So, typically, a current youth generations will have a similar type and outlook as the oldest living generation. This theory is supported by the table above. It is the oldest (Silent) and youngest (Millennials) generations that are least concerned with money and relatively most concerned with being smarter.

Boomers come across as the most money-obsessed generation, which is interesting as they are in a life stage where personal net worth tends to peak. 71% of Boomers would prefer more money to being smarter or better looking.  Of course, with all generational conclusions, it could be more of a life stage issue at work – Boomers are currently between 57 and 74 years old and perhaps pre- and early-retirement are particularly money-centric life stages. But, we suspect that if we had conducted this poll over time Boomers would have been highly concerned with money compared to other generations throughout all life stages.

Finally, these results underscore a point we like to make with clients. It is challenging to fully understand a generation unless we widen the sampling frame and interview other generations as well. Had this question just been asked of Millennials, we may have concluded that money was an overriding concern for them. It is only when comparing them to other generations that we see that they value intelligence and smarts more than others.