Why financial coverage for millennials MUST get better

Iona Bain

Rant time, people. Why oh why does media coverage of young money tend towards taking cool phrases that Da Kids say & shoehorning them into otherwise staid, obvious and box-ticking articles?

With some very honorable exceptions, I despair when I see financial articles ostensibly aimed at young people. The mainstream media seems to believe that making pat references to txt speak, emojis and pop culture is How You Win Over Young Readers. It’s like when your mum joins Facebook, starts taking selfies and tells people that she could be mistaken for your sister on nights out. It’s the definition of cringe.

I suppose we should applaud the gradual (and somewhat begrudging) appearance of such articles in the mainstream media. A few years ago, it was considered journalistic cyanide to pitch a financial article aimed at young people. I should know because I tried. An awful lot. But the response I got back every time was almost a copy-and-paste template; “Thanks for this, but our readers are mainly older…” Ex cetera.

There seems to be an attitude that people only want to read news that directly affects them, particularly when it comes to money and economics, but we all know that this is an impossible test to apply to financial issues. Not every household has borrowed more on credit cards or loans in recent years, but it’s in everyone’s interest to know that rising debt levels could end up destabilising the economy, for instance. Just because young people and those on lower incomes don’t tend to read financial coverage doesn’t give our media license to ignore these groups completely.

That’s why I never understood this attitude, and it still baffles me when I come across it today (as I did just the other week). I also felt that parents would care far more about how their children were doing, especially if they were having a hard time of it, rather than yet another article on how to eek out more from fat pensions and investments.

Then a slow realisation was awakened in the financial media, around about the time that news reports on young people’s financial predicaments were emerging. The penny was starting to drop that today’s twenty somethings were significantly worse off in terms of pay, assets and prospects compared to previous generations. But more importantly, parents were increasingly putting their own resources, effort and energy into trying to make things better for us.

Things are getting slightly better…but only slightly

So the agenda has started to shift, but only so much, and only because the media is trying to keep its (mainly) older readers happy, rather than attend to its social duty of providing financial coverage for the younger generations, regardless of whether they’re reading it or not.

That’s why we see coverage as it is; very much in a corner, very much restricted and signposted as being for millennials (the assumption being that the rest of the coverage is not) and very much centered on a bit of lightweight analysis and guidance, as opposed to hard-hitting and in-depth journalism.

It’s not all like this and there has been some terrific financial journalism done by young writers in recent times. I just wish there was more of it.

The problems are threefold. Firstly, pieces are commissioned by older people who can’t help but bring their own baggage, or even more worryingly, censor what is written in case it conflicts too much with the rest of the coverage. For instance, any report that might be rather bracing about buy-to-let (overwhelmingly the domain of baby-boomers) and its impact on young people is likely to be shot down. Ditto any suggestions that benefits or pension promises for the older generations might have to be curbed to make public finances fairer for young people.

Secondly, the pieces start with the assumption that an older reader will view it as an amusing curio and pass it onto their son or daughter as part of their parental obligations, hence the clunky references to FOMO and the like. If the articles were actually written (or at least allowed to be written) directly for a young reader, they might be a bit more real, radical – and appealing.

Thirdly, readers would probably be shocked if they realised just how little journalists get out of the office these days. Long gone are the days when editors could head to lunch with a contact and head back to the office half-cut at half four announcing they have a scoop. Whilst not necessarily wishing to go back to those boozy days, it is disturbing to see just how much journalists are chained to the desk, 9 to 5 (well, more like 7 or 8), never getting out to meet anybody to find out what’s happening in the real world. The idea that you can be in touch with what’s really going on when you eat al desko and spend most of your weeks interacting with colleagues and PRs is a tad laughable.

I want to add a balancing argument here. As much as I bemoan the media’s proclivity to write for older readers, I have to accept that there will always be a section of the young population that will never engage with either financial issues or the mainstream media – and a significant number positively dislike both.

It has been an uphill struggle to spread the Young Money mission ever since I started in 2011 because I know full well that a lot of financial messages are intrinsically difficult to hear; living just for today is not the solution and you do have to make some tough decisions about your spending, particularly if you’re saving for a big goal like your first home.

If journalists believe that young people are so wrapped up in the now, so taken with our consumerist culture and so lacking in any desire or ability to save for the future that writing for them is a futile task, I can see why financial coverage takes the form that it does.

However, it is certainly not fair or wise to conclude that all young people fall into the camp of feckless pleasure seekers. There are many smart, capable and hardworking young people out there who DO want to engage constructively with their finances. They don’t need a ton of wise-cracking references in an article to pique their interest, nor do they want to be patronised or lectured. They are (rightly) cynical about many of the financial orthodoxies about how they should do things because they know full well that they may not have been constructed with their best interests in mind – take the infuriatingly relentless message to save into a pension come what may, driven by big interests in the financial sector, often at the expense of rigorous coverage into auto-enrolment and its many shortcomings.

Until we start seeing a more even-handed and thoughtful approach to covering young people’s financial issues, the media shouldn’t be surprised if millennials increasingly go elsewhere to try and get information on what’s REALLY going on. And the risk is that young people are already relying on the internet, with all its murky commercial machinations and paucity of fact-checked resources. In theory, non-profit blogs (like mine) should fill the void but we cannot do it on our own; we need a trusted media relatively unchained from commercial pressures to keep the flame alive. Millennials aren’t stupid but they are struggling; let’s give them the coverage they deserve.

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