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Panic over generational attitudes toward everything from cola to cable has industry pundits doomsaying – but the truth isn’t so bleak. (Thinkstock)
Panic over generational attitudes toward everything from cola to cable has industry pundits doomsaying – but the truth isn’t so bleak. (Thinkstock)

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What millennials’ attitudes really mean for investors Add to ...

Millennials: They’re young, restless and wildly technological – but can they lay waste to entire industries as we know them today?

Oops, sorry. Got a little carried away making this investment thesis sound like a piece of pulp fiction. Yet sometimes I feel I’m reading a dime-store novel when I read about what millennials’ beliefs and attitudes mean for investors.

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The latest is a column by Jeff Reeves at the U.S. website MarketWatch, “Five Industries that Millennials are Destroying.” He says the group of young people he defines as born between 1980 to 1995 are “shunning” industries that have been core to the experiences of previous generations. This “could cause a lot of pain for investors over the long-term if current trends continue.”

Fair enough. But while I think there’s some truth to the arguments, some of the trends are bigger and broader than just millennial behaviour, while others may prove to be just plain wrong.

Let’s start with an intriguing one: soft drinks. Mr. Reeves cites a Morgan Stanley report from earlier this year that the proportion of children 12 to 17 who drank regular colas in the six months prior to the survey dropped to 51.5 per cent in 2012 from 61.3 per cent in 2005. The big winners were energy drinks, followed by ready-to-drink teas and sports drinks.

Certainly, giants Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. have offerings in those growing fields. But the bulk of their sales and profits remain in their legacy businesses. What’s most troubling is that there’s nothing particularly expensive about colas; no millennial is shunning these drinks for the cost (particularly when the alternatives are more expensive). This is one to watch.

Mr. Reeves identifies two more industries at risk of millennial destruction, but I suspect young consumers are only piling on to what the older folk have figured out.

One is cable television, with the number of pay-TV lines falling in the United States in 2013 for the first time ever. The old people who ditch cable or satellite for online services are “cord cutters”; many millennials are “cord nevers,” who never subscribed to pay television.

Certainly, while the tech-savvy young are more likely to eschew cable, the clearer divide, to me, is the sports fan versus the non-sports fan. Despite a growth in live online offerings, it’s virtually impossible to follow a major professional sport without one of the legacy pay-TV services. That so many people are willing to do so – and that that many cable companies also happen to be the provider of Internet services that make cutting the cord possible – means it could be a long time before they see their end.

Mr. Reeves also identifies brick-and-mortar retail. Its problems are, however, multigenerational. Unless you believe the woes of Staples Inc. and the other major North American retailers are due to twentysomethings’ distaste for office supplies.

Now, then, a couple of industries where I think the millennial theory is off: Mr. Reeves lists cars and homes as things millennials simply don’t want. “A car is just an expensive hassle … as technology equals freedom,” he says. And “Millennials don’t want to live in suburbia, and either can’t or won’t take on a mortgage payment. And that trend is not going away.”

These trends will go away – at least, if the economy co-operates. I suspect the decline in driver’s licences among the young is largely because parents haven’t had the money to buy new cars, so they haven’t had the money to pass along the oldest of their vehicles to their driving-age kid.

And of course, millennials don’t want to live in suburbia. Neither did Generation X, when they were young, or at least that’s what we said. A Facebook friend just posted a handwritten promissory note, written by a friend in 2004, that said she’d never live in the suburbs. Guess what happens when spouses and kids and urban housing prices intervene?

Mr. Reeves, at least, acknowledges the economic factors that are, I think, at the core of the matter of millennials’ attitudes about cars and houses. These items seem far less reachable in an era of underwhelming job opportunity and burdensome college debt. And those two things, if unchanged, are far more worrisome for all industries and all investors than whatever we think millennials believe.

 

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