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.
The oldest millennials, who are turning 40 this year, haven't lost their step when it comes to keeping up with technological advancements.
In fact, about 57% of those born between 1981 and 1988 say they regularly use Instagram, according to survey data compiled by The Harris Poll on behalf of CNBC Make It. That's compared with 73% of Gen Zers and 48% of Generation X members. Harris Poll surveyed roughly 1,000 Americans ages 33 to 40 in one poll and conducted another survey of nearly 2,000 U.S. adults with additional generations.
More than a third of older millennials also use Snapchat frequently, compared with 61% of Gen Zers and 25% of Gen Xers.
To be sure, older millennials have shown in the past the ability to quickly adapt to new technologies. They were the first generation to have access to computers from a young age. They also grew up at a time when technology giants such as Google and Amazon rose to prominence.
Older millennials are the first generation to grow up with computers at home
Alex Taub, the 33-year-old CEO of Gen Z-favorite social networking start-up Upstream, says growing up with a Gateway 3000 in his house was a big factor in nurturing his interest in tech. This allowed him to explore new technology — like the rise of the internet — as it became popular.
Taub says his friends have wide-ranging levels of technological prowess but notes that almost all of them are better with computers than their parents. This is something he attributes to having a lifelong familiarity with tech. Only 12% of baby boomers report using Instagram regularly, and just 4% say they regularly use Snapchat, according to The Harris Poll data.
"To our parents, [technology] was foreign," Taub says. "With us and our peers, even if you're not the most proficient digital person, you're not like Captain America coming back after 70 years under the ice."
"You may not be good at it. You may not understand the subtleties of this. But it's not like, 'What is this?'" he adds.
Even millennials who didn't end up working in tech were regularly exposed to computers growing up.
Stephanie McCay, a 36-year-old communications director and mother of three, tells CNBC Make It that some of her earliest memories using computers are of AOL Instant Messenger in middle school, adding that the dial-up sound is something she will never forget.
McCay remembers doing school reports where she was required to find articles online to use as sources in addition to the books she found at the library. "It was sort of introducing me and my classmates to the internet and how to use it," she says.
This comfort level has allowed millennials to keep up with Gen Z in some instances, with 69% of the older generation saying they are comfortable using Twitter compared to 71% of the younger survey respondents. Also, 80% of older millennials say they're comfortable using Instagram versus 83% for Gen Z.
Even a newer service like TikTok — another favorite of Gen Z — has built a strong older-millennial user base, with 33% saying they use it regularly. Taub partially credits this to older millennials having a familiarity with the style of video, even if they weren't familiar with its new packaging.
"Everything that's old is new again with technology: Once you get your 'For You' page to be more tuned to you, it's a short form, digestible YouTube," he says, referring to TikTok's recommendation algorithm which learns each user's preferences.
Nonfungible tokens — the collectible digital tokens that have been selling for millions of dollars in recent months — are also familiar to millennials. "A lot of us experienced all the crazes, from Beanie Babies to baseball cards," Taub says.
More than half of older millennials surveyed by The Harris Poll and CNBC Make It say they're comfortable using NFTs, compared with 47% of Gen Xers.
Millennials have been here for the birth of many major technologies
One thing that defines older millennials is they entered adulthood during massive technological shifts, says Ed Zitron, the 35-year-old CEO of tech-focused public relations firm EZPR.
"We've been active and relatively young for the creation of Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook," Zitron says. "The way that mobile phones work now, millennials were there when they started. A lot of advancements have been crammed into our youngest times and also our not-quite-old times."
The oldest millennials, born in 1981, were in their early 20s when Facebook first started spreading across college campuses, 26 when the first iPhone was released in 2007 and 28 when Travis Kalanick founded Uber in 2009.
"If you look at the time period when millennials were in their teenage years through their late 20s, an insane amount of new stuff was invented," Zitron says. "Millennials were thrown into a maelstrom of new things. I don't think Gen Z is going to see so many new things at the volume that we did."
Brianne Kimmel, founder and managing partner at Worklife Ventures, sees millennials' embrace of new technologies as the natural path for a generation that went through young adulthood doing things the old-fashioned way.
"We are a generation that remembers going to the grocery store, that remembers how inconvenient it was to book a taxi or ask a friend to pick you up from the airport," the 32-year-old tells Make It. "In a lot of ways, with these new technologies that we're adopting, we're also becoming more of a convenience generation."
That's certainly true for McCay. Juggling parenting responsibilities with her full-time job leaves her with little time to run errands, so services like online shopping and grocery delivery help give her more time with her family.
"Being able to get a check, take a picture of it and have it deposited into your bank account, that's one less trip," she says. "As a busy working mom, I need technology to help me with my time and my life. Those little things save me."
Older millennials know they need to stay sharp in order to keep up
Some millennials may also use platforms like Reddit to help find ways to improve their lives if they feel they're behind on life goals, Kimmel says. Roughly a quarter of older millennials previously surveyed by CNBC Make It say student loans affected their ability to buy a home, as well as save for emergencies and retirement.
"We see this on Reddit with a lot of the investing subreddits where millennials are actively seeking ways to make more money and to get caught up financially," she says. "Some of the ways [millennials] use social media are largely to become more educated and to figure out ways to hit financial goals in ways that weren't possible previously."
And because an increasing number of adults find themselves needing to work past 65 to retire comfortably, keeping up with new technologies will also be important to stay competitive in the job market, Kimmel says.
Additionally, raising children in a high-tech world will parents understanding the platforms their kids are using, she says.
"Because I'm a parent and I have three little kids, I need to continue to learn these technologies because I need to see what they're doing," McCay explains, noting that her oldest child has asked to make a TikTok account. "Millennials are in this interesting time where we started a lot of this stuff, and even though we may not want to continue, we have to because of our kids."
There may likely come a day when a product arrives that there is a generational shift on, Zitron says, but he doesn't believe it has arrived yet. "I think the reason we're not seeing more category creation is that what we want is here," he says. "What we're limited by is technology."