The Declining Economic Might of the Once Coveted 18-to-34 Demographic

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For years, retailers, marketers and businesses of all shapes and sizes have gone out of their way to try to win over that “all-important” 18-to-34-year-old demographic. Now that this age group is broke and facing huge student loans and a lackluster job market, though, the realization is setting in that perhaps it’s not such a good idea to focus on a bunch of consumers with little disposable income and increasingly frugal habits.
The perfect customer is one who is young (and has the potential to keep being a customer for decades), hip (so others will follow in his footsteps and also become customers) and always supplied with plenty of money to blow on the latest products and services. Thanks to the Great Recession and its fallout, however, it’s unlikely that someone who is young and hip also has all that much cash to throw around.

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Only 54% of Americans ages 18 to 24 have jobs, the lowest rate since the government started tracking such data in 1948. Young Americans are increasingly likely to live with their parents because they cannot afford to get out on their own, and outstanding student-loan debt is near $1 trillion for the first time ever.

The combination of soaring student-loan debt, rising costs of higher education and an employment market that’s short on jobs — and especially short on well-paid jobs for young workers — is forming the next massive “debt bomb,” according to a recent Washington Post story.

In light of the poor financial situation facing many millenials, analysts cited by Bloomberg are saying that it may be time to ease off targeting the youth market. They’re young, and they may be trend setters, but odds are they’re still not the best customers — because they just don’t have much money to spend.

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In particular, it seems like a bad idea for retailers such as Gap, Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch to keep focusing almost exclusively on young hipsters:

“The age group Gap is marketing to, 18-to-34-year-olds, is only drawn in by sales and promotions,” [Brean Murray, Carret & Co. analyst Eric] Beder said. “Maybe they want to be wired and fashion-driven, but they’re not willing to pay for it.”

Beder also notes, “This customer doesn’t pay up for product, and they might not turn into a 45-to-50-year-old who will.” Retailers and advertisers work on the premise that the habits developed by consumers in their teens and 20s are likely to stay with them for a lifetime. If this is the case, then the Great Recession and the years of high unemployment that follow seem to be creating a generation of shoppers that’s going to often refuse to pay full price.

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Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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