As millennials begin to turn 40 in 2021, CNBC Make It has launched Middle-Aged Millennials, a series exploring how the oldest members of this generation have grown into adulthood amid the backdrop of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, student loans, stagnant wages and rising costs of living.
Despite obstacles like student loans and entering the workforce on the heels of the Great Recession, most older millennials are content with the way their life has turned out thus far, according to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CNBC Make It.
The survey polled 1,000 U.S. adults ages 33 to 40 during March about a variety of topics — including their health, technology usage, families and future ambitions — and found that 78% of people said they were satisfied with their lives.
Older millennials are at a unique stage in life that allows them more comfort and fulfillment than their younger peers, happiness researchers say. They typically have stable jobs, higher self-esteem and more perspective, for example.
Here, experts spell out some of the reasons why older millennials say they're content, and what it could mean for their futures:
Happiness changes as you age
Research has shown that age influences the way that we experience happiness, says Cassie Mogilner Holmes, professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.
To younger people in their teens and 20s, happiness is more about excitement, anticipation and high-energy situations, Mogilner Holmes says. "As people get older, calm contentment becomes more of how they experience happiness," she says.
Technically, there are two key aspects of happiness: subjective well-being, which refers to positive emotions that you feel in the moment, and life satisfaction, which is how you feel about your life overall.
Young millennials who are still in the process of establishing their identity, finding a partner and building a career may be less secure and happy than older ones, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who studies happiness.
When people reach their 30s and 40s, ordinary moments in daily life have a much bigger impact on happiness, Mogilner Holmes says. "It's actually driven by starting to realize as you get older that your time is limited, and therefore, your time is precious, which makes you start to sort of savor all those little precious moments," she says.
Time may be precious, but so is money when it comes to people's happiness. Contrary to popular wisdom, income and wealth are correlated with happiness. A study from 2010 that is considered seminal found that people tend to feel happier the more money they make, to an estimated point of about $75,000 a year.
When people have enough money to meet basic needs (such as health care, somewhere to live and food), "you're buffered from stress and adversity," Lyubomirsky says.
A more recent 2018 study out of Purdue University found that the ideal income point for individuals is $95,000 for life satisfaction and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being.
The CNBC Make It survey found that those older millennials whose household income is above $150,000 a year are nearly universally content (94% including those who were "somewhat" or "very much" content), while those bringing in less than $50,000 a year are less content (63% in those categories).
"It's not surprising that having the money to cover those needs and to make you feel secure financially is a source of relief and therefore contentment," Mogilner Holmes says.
We also know that much of our happiness is based on relative comparisons to our peers, Lyubomirsky says. That is, making more money relative to other people makes us happier in a way that simply having more money does not.
For perspective, median household income was $68,703 in 2019, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Millennials in 2018 had a median household income of roughly $71,400, according to Pew data.
In context of the Covid pandemic, when so many people have lost their lives and their jobs, money has taken on more meaning.
Covid has created perspective
Indeed, the past year living during the pandemic has led to significant changes in most people's lives.
Millions of people moved during the crisis, with millennials in particular leaving big cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Data from CNBC Make It's survey suggests that where you live may have only a slight effect on happiness: 80% of older millennials who live in a major city with more than 4 million people said they were very content with their lives, and 76% of those in the suburbs said the same.
For middle-aged millennials who may be settled in their careers or starting a family, the pandemic may have highlighted what's actually important.
"It's shifted us from these sort of pie-in-the-sky aspirations for all these things that you could have," Mogilner Holmes says. "That way of thinking has gone by the wayside because of so many people have lost their jobs and their lives."
Things that people have historically taken for granted (like your loved ones, your job or financial security) are more appreciated now, she says.
But only time will whether that appreciation will last as older millennials keep aging.
Will millennials lose some satisfaction?
For some perspective: A pre-pandemic Gallup poll conducted in January 2020 found that 90% of all Americans — ages 18 and up — were satisfied with the way things are going in their personal life, up from an average of about 83% since 1979.
And a much-talked about 2020 study from Dartmouth, which controlled for gender, education, marital status and labor force status, suggests that there's a U-shaped happiness curve, where middle-aged people are the least happy, with happiness bottoming out around age 47.2 and rebounding when people reach their 60s and 70s. (Other literature from positive psychologists suggests that adolescents and young adults ages 14 to 28 are the least happy.)
But ultimately, that study doesn't paint the full picture of what happiness means for middle-aged people. Age is confounded with several things that make people happy and buffer stress, like finding a partner, making more money and having higher self-esteem.
If older millennials are content now, that contentment won't necessarily go away, Mogilner Holmes says.