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Living Like Millennials? Baby Boomers Are Renting, Paying off Debt, and Have Roommates

They spend their day on social media, have roommates, and are paying off student debt. Baby boomers, that is.
Carolyn Allen, Marcia Rosenfeld
Carolyn Allen, left, a 69-year-old widow who has suffered two strokes, makes her way to the living room with roommate Marcia Rosenfeld, who owns the apartment Allen lives in New York, July 17, 2014. The two women are roommates thanks to a home-sharing program run by a New York-based nonprofit agency. Rosenfeld's two-bedroom apartment is too big for her, and even with a senior citizen's rent break, at over $1,000 a month, it was too expensive, so she is happy to have Allen help share living expenses. Allen doesn't want to live alone and doesn't want to spend a lot on rent, so she and Rosenfeld agree the program suits their individual needs.Kathy Willens / AP, file

Ah, baby boomers and millennials — could they be more different? The former are in or nearing retirement, while the other group is ambitiously rising in the workforce. Many millennials are waiting to marry and have kids, while their dear old boomer parents, quite possibly divorced by now, were comparatively eager to settle down in their twenties.

Is there any common ground between these two demographics who, rivaling in size, are so often pitted against one another? Research shows that in fact, yes, in many ways millennials and boomers are similar, not only in values but in other matters including finance, living situations, and even online presence.

More Than Facebook Friends In Common

It's become a cliché: the sentimental boomer mom or dad annoying or embarrassing their millennial kid with their clumsy Facebook attempts. Well, those days are just about over as boomers become more adept at using social media.

According to Pew Research Center, social media usage by older adults is increasing: as of November 2016, 64 percent of people between the ages of 50 and 64 are active on at least one social media site — up 14 percent from July 2015.

Like millennials, boomers are keen on sharing their experiences on social media — and to engage with user-generated and brand-curated content.

According to Olapic's Consumer Trust Study Report, boomers and millennials trust user-generated content over content created by brands, to varying degrees. Thirty-six percent of boomers trust user-generated content, while 24 percent trust content created by brands; 47 percent of millennials trust user-generated content, with 25 percent trusting content created by brands.

Additionally, Olapic's study found that boomers and millennials both prefer photos over other types of social content; and that 90 percent of boomers prefer Facebook to other social networking sites, while 25 percent of millennials prefer Instagram.

"My sense is that as smartphone penetration grows among boomers, they're getting more into Facebook, mainly because it's the most well-established [of the social media sites]," said Mark Potts, head of insights at Mindshare North America. "I think they'll end up on Instagram, too. Like millennials, boomers show a desire for experiences, especially in the travel category. Both boomers and millennials are reactive in terms of wanting to go out and do something and get off the beaten path."

As brands continue to strengthen their digital presence with social media ad campaigns, they may want to pay more attention to the presence of boomers.

"Our hypothesis is that brands are over-focused on millennials," said Potts. "Take the spirits category, for instance: the majority of off-premise buyers are older consumers and yet the liquor brands tend to be focused on younger adult buyers. They should be [tailoring] their messaging to be more inclusive of older consumer groups."

File photo of elderly couples viewing the ocean and waves along the beach in La Jolla
A pair of elderly couples view the ocean and waves along the beach in La Jolla, California. REUTERS/Mike Blake/FilesREUTERS

Renting Houses — and Getting Roommates

Last year, home ownership rates in the U.S fell to a historic low, and while millennials — who are less likely to buy than previous generations — are partly to blame, the surging interest among boomers to rent rather than own mustn't be discounted.

A 2015 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that families or married couples ages 45–64 accounted for roughly twice the share of renter growth as households under the age of 35.

Like millennials, boomers are affected by increasing rents in "hot housing markets, such as San Francisco and L.A," said Matt Hutchinson, director of SpareRoom. "With renters paying increasingly higher rents than ever before, both millennials and boomers are having to adjust their definition of affordability. For example, boomers who grew up with 'the 30 percent rule,' find the new standards of rental prices to be especially unaffordable."

To manage high rent, baby boomers are increasingly open to living with roommates.

"Numerous boomers are using SpareRoom to find roommates," said Hutchinson, noting spikes in major housing markets such as Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia.

Interestingly, it's not just money concerns that motivate boomers to take on a roomie or two. Sometimes, social factors are at play.

"[Like] millennials who choose to live with others for social reason, boomers do the same," Hutchinson said. "In fact, we found that many boomers choose to share living accommodations even though they can afford to live alone."

In the Shadow of Student Loan Debt

Nationwide, student loan debt has topped $1.4 trillion, and is mounting every second. Millennials may be the group being hit the hardest, with recent research by Citizens Bank finding that 60 percent of college graduates aged 35 and under with student loans expect to be paying them off into their 40s — but boomers are also bearing the burden.

"Millennials get a lot of the press when it comes to the student loan crisis and how it will affect our futures, but there are boomers who are of retirement age and still dealing with student loans, many of which were probably taken out for a millennial child," said Erin Lowry, author of 'Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping by and Get Your Financial Life Together.' "Concerns about paying off debt and being able to retire comfortably transcends generational divides."

Lowry pointed to 2015 research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that shows 2.8 million borrowers were 60 years or older.

"A decade prior, it was only 700,000," said Lowry.

Making a Difference

Politically tense times tend to bring people of all ages together, and we're seeing that profoundly right now — but when it comes to boomers and millennials, the political bond may be deeper than we realized.

Ashleigh Hansberger, co-founder and director of brand strategy at Motto, notes that when it comes to wanting to make a social difference, millennials and boomers are birds of a feather.

"Both generations have a sensitivity to important social and political causes," Hansberger told NBC News.

"Optimistic boomers marched for civil rights in the sixties, while millennials were at the front of the Occupy movement and at the center of the Obama campaigns. Both generations showed up for the Women’s March on Washington to stand up for the same ideals, and both generations are ambitious, achievement-oriented, community-centered and opportunistic, and share a desire to make the world a better place."

Helping Each Other Learn

Traditionally, it's up to the elder generation to give advice to younger ones, but with boomers and millennials, mentorship is a two-way street.

"Individuals in both generations look to the other for mentoring," said Megan Gerhardt, professor of management and leadership at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University. "In the case of millennials, research shows that they prefer to seek advice and mentorship from boomers over Generation X, [and that] the road works both ways: We have seen the surprising development of 'reverse mentoring,' with millennials providing guidance and support to boomers in areas such as technology and social media."

Boomer leaders who are open to the ideas and suggestions of millennials may benefit from allowing this generation to help improve workplace practices, and may also find this to be an effective way of creating opportunities to provide the guidance and feedback millennials need during the early stages of their career."

Sounds like it's time to put the millennials vs. boomers argument to bed and just agree that really, we're not all that different, and maybe, just maybe, we're all in this together.