Consider the millennial, America’s enigmatic under-35-year-old adult, and a few standard tropes come to mind: slacker, living in parent’s basement, obsessed with Snapchat.
But there’s plenty that’s still unknowable about the generation, simply because the economy has been so awful for most of their lives. The behavior we’ve come to associate with the group is deeply informed by the 2008 financial crisis, and traits that seem to define them now—living at home, for example—are likely more a product of financial duress than ingrained tendencies.
Because of millennials, “We’re all looking at our businesses, thinking how we’re going to have to do things differently,” said Anne Richards, CEO-elect of M&G Investments, speaking Tuesday at the Global Outlook panel at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. But until companies have an accurate sense of their consumption habits, Richards says, that might be premature.
“To an extent they had a longer period as adolescents — they’re living at home longer, they’re studying for a bit longer,” Richards says. But after the economy improves and they move out of the house, “You might see quite different behave coming from this cohort down the line,” particularly, she adds, “once they have a partner and children.”
Rana Foroohar, assistant managing editor at Time, moderated the panel at the Fortune conference, which surveyed the global economic outlook. She noted that the recession’s impact on the Millennials’ habits is likely to be long lasting. “They have been imprinted,” Foroohar said. “If you look historically, economic behaviors are formed in your 20s.” She joked: “My grandmother [who lived through the Great Depression] uses a tea bag 10 times.”
Still, there are important ways in which millennials as consumers behave much differently than the generations that came before them. Younger adults “have exposure to many more things and a broader worldview” than previous generations, said Sandi Peterson, group worldwide chairman at Johnson & Johnson.
That trend has had big implications for Johnson & Johnson, a global pharmaceutical and consumer-goods giant that’s still expanding its reach. “Even if we don’t sell some of our brands in local markets, people are buying those brands and having them shipped into their countries.”
And once younger consumers have a little more money—they’ll be buying significantly more.