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American Consumer Project: Liz in Champaign County, Ill.

For the Next Year, Ad Age Is Following 11 Households to Examine Consumer Behavior. Meet Liz, a Millennial Dealing With Pay Cuts and Debt

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Champaign County, Il | Scholars and Patriots | Campus and Careers

For the next year, Ad Age is working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on the American consumer. We are tracking 11 households in 11 representative counties to see how their experiences differ. In this piece we introduce one of those households. For more on the project and segments, see AdAge.com/consumer.

Liz, 26, is a millennial but she didn't know it. Working part time in radio, she was a little embarrassed that she hadn't heard the term. Yet when asked, she gave a very nuanced description of both how she views her generation and how others see them -- even if she didn't know the marketing/demographic label she's been saddled with.

Credit: David Flaherty

She spoke of the odd dualities of the millennials. They're both exhibitionists and voyeurs. On the one hand, they're all about the over-share on boundary-blurring social networks. On the other, they have a front-row seat in the train-wreck lives of a wide-range of realty TV psuedo-celebs. They're seen as hugely self-absorbed but also very engaged with their friends and communities.

"We are very voyeuristic, we watch 'Jersey Shore.' But in the same sense, we are 'Jersey Shore,'" she said. "I think [millennials] just think, 'Oh, I'm going to go to college and I'm going to get a job and things are going to work out well for me because I'm entitled to that and that 's what's supposed to happen and that 's what happens for everyone,' when in reality that 's not what happens to everyone," she said.

"So I think that we just kind of look like these lazy, entitled, very bratty and obnoxious. On the same token … we are going to take to the streets and take back what is ours and do what we want and make change. I see these young people that really are going to make big changes and really want to and aren't going to stand for anything less, and want equality and want better for themselves."

In addition to being a millennial, she's constantly surrounded by them. She works at the University of Illinois at its main campus in Champaign/Urbana. She's also an alumna. She grew up in Decatur, about 40 minutes from campus. Staying that close to home was not her original intent. At first, she didn't apply to any in-state schools, but her college counselor required her to try at least one. Cost was a big consideration -- in-state tuition means a lot in savings -- but it helped that she fell in love with the campus when she went for a visit.

Her dad was a member of the local media and therefore a bit of a regional celebrity. At first she wanted to follow in his footsteps in broadcast, but she took a rather un-millennial approach to it. Instead of having him make some calls, she asked for his guidance instead of his connections. At 15, she started interning for a local radio station learning the ins and outs of how to run an audio board. After working at that for a year she talked to her boss about getting on-air. She made audition tape after audition tape until she got a not-so-coveted Sunday night shift while still a junior in high school. To stay out from under her father's shadow, she never used her real name on air, inventing a lot of stripper-like one-name pseudonyms that fit in well with the hard-rock format. At one point, she was working at two different stations under two names, each chosen for its targeted demographic appeal by the station manager.

Changing Plans
Liz is a planner and she gets her work ethic (and snarky humor) from her dad, a boot-strapping baby boomer. She got a degree in broadcast and set off on a full-time career in radio. But it didn't take long for her to look around and try to assess how that career arc might spin out. "I made the command decision based on the things that I was noticing within my own business that radio is much like newspapers. The future of them is uncertain. Everyone's trying to figure out the way to do more with less, and so we were cutting back a lot on our workforce. We had a few people laid off and then we also had a 5% pay cut, and it seemed to be a trend."

It's easy to think that a 5% pay cut isn't that big of a deal, but when you're young and not making that much to begin with, 5% can really be a life-changing amount. She didn't want to admit that to herself or others at first, but she grew tired of coming up with excuses for why she wasn't going out with her friends. It hurt the self-described social butterfly. In the end, she had to face it. When she told her friends about the cuts, "It kind of felt good to just admit honestly that that was why." She also came to terms with it herself and cut back on the things she could. She refinanced her car loan and consolidated her credit-card debt as well. "I also had to realize that I couldn't go out to lunch. I'm horrible at that . I like to cook, but I don't like to plan my lunches, because I'm not a morning person."

That was the end of career goal No. 1. The planner started to draw a new map. She decided to go back to school in a couple of years but get some more practical marketing, communications and technology skills in the meantime.

Liz got a job at the University of Illinois, one of the largest employers in all of Illinois. That led to her only-ever clothes-buying spree. Typically, she shops once or twice a month with a specific clothing need. She hits The Limited, Target , the Loft and Express. If she needs something dressy, she'll head to Macy's but she doesn't have a ton of options in mid-Illinois.

Counties like this also have attendant dualities. For our purposes, Champaign is a "Campus and Careers" in the Patchwork Nation. The dominant Tapestry group is Esri's "Scholars and Patriots."

At the high end of the spectrum are entrenched, tenured, well-compensated faculty. At the low end is a transient, young, technology-savvy group of students who come and go, often earning little while wracking up considerable debt. In general, there is a seasonal rhythm but a certain stability that comes from an institutional anchor like a university -- or, in the Tapestry case, a military base would work as well. Patchwork Nation separates out college towns and military bases as often having different political opinions. Esri brings these big institutionally focused counties under one classification.

In today's climate the "anchor" doesn't help quite as much. Everything is slipping.

States like Illinois are facing considerable budget crises. That's hitting the university budgets along with everything else. Powerful lobbies are making calls for smaller government. Call it what you will -- "austerity," "responsible," "right-sizing," whatever -- smaller, in all cases, translates to layoffs.

Trade-offs and Layoffs
Up until recently, Liz had been trying to scrape together the money for a new laptop but was never quite able to hit her monthly savings goals. The reason? Too many weddings. Many millennials are putting off this life-stage for both economic reasons or changing ideas about the importance of the institution itself. Not so Liz's friends. She went to six weddings this summer and was frequently a bridesmaid. "None of [the dresses] have been under $100 and none of them have been over $200, and I am up to three of them now. That does not include the price for throwing a shower, throwing a bachelorette party and getting two to three presents per wedding." So the laptop lost out.

Now the laptop isn't even a consideration. Her nice, stable department at work was downsized and the guy who started work the same day she did lost his job.

The message wasn't lost on Liz. It's not that she feels entitled to something she hasn't worked for. She's been trying to build a career for herself since she was 15, after all. She's played her cards right, she's making smart choices. But upon seeing a close co-worker with a pretty similar hand lose out, the broader realities are setting in.

Frankly, the broader realities suck. It's a rotten time to be young, economically. The jobless rate for millennials is much higher than for other age groups. Record numbers of them have had to move back in with their parents. Kids are coming out of college with huge debt burdens and are facing the daunting task of paying them off, without necessarily having a job to do so. Areas such as Champaign are feeling it, as are millennials like Liz .

She's re-prioritizing want and need. She's in a position not unlike many (perhaps even the majority of ) Americans. To mix metaphors a little, she's trying to tighten the belt financially but realizing that the pants don't fit as well as they used to. Faced with spending money on some new clothes, or working to fit in her existing outfits, she's chosen to invest in herself instead of her wardrobe. She's eating healthier and training for a half marathon. That is altering her grocery habits, of course. Instead of the laptop, she's trying to find room in her budget for a gym membership. At the moment, her workout plan all takes place outdoors, but as winter sets in that looks less and less appealing.

It'll be a squeeze. She takes the bus to work, but still has a car payment. It's not easy to be an adult in a college town without some transportation of your own. She, like other ACP participant Jay in Leavensworth, Ks., got a Jetta as her first major post-college purchase. She rents an apartment, a one-bedroom downtown. It's a three-floor apartment above a mom-and-pop rental shop with 18 units. She likes to go out with friends and host her own parties. She spends time with her Gen-X boyfriend. They eat in but also like to eat out. They spend most of their time at his place. Either he provides the food or she brings half, which is either something she already has, or something she can pick up quickly on the way.

Showing a little of their generational differences (Liz had heard the term Gen X), he thinks she's a book-killing devil for purchasing an e-reader. He's also indifferent as to the status of their relationship on Facebook, which has essentially been a part of Liz's entire adult life. Her usage has changed over the years as she's switched life stages out of her student days. "I did used to have frequent status updates. I would upload all my pictures after a weekend or an event. And then I realized one day at work while I was waiting for a meeting, while I was taking some downtime, while I was in the middle of something, even when I was at home, if I was just bored I would go on Facebook." She came to a set of realizations that hit different people differently.

"I know a lot about [my Facebook friends'] lives and I don't even know them. I'm looking at these pictures and I don't even know these people." Of course that meant the converse was likely true, too. "I realized, wow, there's a lot of people looking at me that way and it kind of made me feel uncomfortable. I would like my friends to be my friends and my acquaintances to be my acquaintances."

She communicates primarily through text message, using a Sprint unlimited plan to do so. She loves her Evo and admits that she depends on it too much. But it's a convenient way to make plans with friends and her boyfriend. She's shopping more online now than ever before. For one reason, she really likes shoes but has "big feet for a woman." Between that and the limited retail selection available to her in brick-and-mortar stores, she likes the options on the internet. She can then also multitask while shopping -- watching TV, Facebooking, catching up on the news, etc.

She shops for quality and has never been a bargain shopper, although she's starting to rethink that . She bought her first Groupon recently (as a wedding present, of course, for a friend in Chicago). "I'm the person that 's willing to pay more if I think that I get more," she said.

If you want Liz to shop at your online (or physical) store, it had better show the same sort of attention to quality she's looking for in the merchandise itself.

"If I go to your website and it doesn't look clean and crisp and easy to navigate and aesthetically pleasing to me, I -- for whatever reason, I have no justification for this -- think that your product and your customer service and what you do as a business is not as good because you have not taken the time to care enough about what your website looks like."

Put more simply, "If your website is a mess or if it's hard for me to navigate, I'm done," she said.

Despite growing up in a broadcast family and working in radio herself, she gets almost all her news and information online. "I will occasionally watch network news, MSNBC, CNN-type stuff, Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, whatever. I don't watch those religiously." Mostly she's reading blogs, the Huffington Post and traditional news sites such as the Washington Post, New York Times and CNN.

She's hoping for some positive news about the economy so she can relax a little. But for now, Liz is happy to save for her gym and keep her head down, working hard, trying to stay on course.

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