The Romans predicted the future by watching birds fly and examining sheep’s livers. We’ve come a long way in 2,000 years, with surveys, statistics and … potato salad!

Zack Brown, a twenty-something Web designer from Columbus, Ohio, made a pitch via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter seeking $10 to cook a batch of potato salad. His tongue-in-cheek video stood out on the site, more typically filled with proposals for product launches, indie films and charitable causes.

Brown’s deadpan sendup of business bravado hit the right note of irony: “To make the familiar cutting edge and the cutting edge familiar … and vice versa … We set out to redefine what a side dish could be.” It coaxed $55,492 from nearly 7,000 people in a few weeks. Riding on the wave of potato salad mania, Brown announced that a “significant portion” of the bonanza will be used to fight homelessness and hunger in central Ohio.

This whimsical saga illustrates how technology used with imagination and humor can create expectation-busting outcomes — while pivoting to tackle serious issues. It’s an attitude often associated with millennials, those born since 1980.

But numerous studies have criticized this generation’s self-absorption and cited its parsimonious spending habits, such as renting rather than buying houses and avoiding big-ticket purchases like cars, as key factors holding back the pace of economic recovery. Meanwhile, a pair of recent surveys measuring Americans’ financial attitudes paint millennials as a generation of “super savers” burdened by a “Depression-era mentality.”

Molded by the financial crisis

The Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies reports that millennials start saving for retirement (mostly through 401(k) plans) at a much earlier age, 22, compared with older workers. Like their older Gen-X siblings, but unlike their boomer parents, two-thirds of millennials expect to self-fund retirement, not believing Social Security will be available for them.

Meanwhile, UBS Wealth Management describes this generation as “permanently scarred by the 2008 financial crisis,” insecure about job prospects and uncertain about future earnings potential. As a result, millennials take an “extremely conservative” approach to finances, holding 59 percent of their assets in cash and fixed income instruments rather than investing in stocks — just like their Depression-era grandparents.

The UBS survey makes the important point that holding nearly 60 percent of your money in cash might be appropriate for a retiree, but makes no economic sense for a young person, given the long-term wealth-building record of equities. Millennials’ bias to saving rather than investing, if not the wisest course, is understandable, however, given the parade of Wall Street scandals, market meltdowns, burst bubbles and flash crashes we have witnessed over the past decade, which brings us back to potato salad.

What the surveys miss

Attitude surveys “miss things you don’t measure” about young adults, pointed out Irene Fernando. The 29-year old said the potato salad campaign illustrates millennials tendency to “invest” in their peers’ ideas and support social ventures which don’t register in a survey from a financial institution.

As co-director of Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF), an experiential service and leadership organization for college and high school students, Fernando surrounds herself with young people. She and three fellow students launched the venture as freshman at the University of Minnesota 11 years ago. Since then, STLF has grown into a bona fide charitable organization, touching 22,000 student participants with an $850,000 budget.

Several millennials interviewed for this story did not dispute their generation’s financial conservatism, citing student debt, a tough job market, a decade of war, the real estate bubble and market meltdown as factors. But they also emphasized that, for many of their generation, finding meaningful work and sharing experiences, whether travel, volunteering or running a marathon, are higher priorities than building a stock portfolio or buying a house.

While Greg Tehven describes himself and his peers as “insecure,” it hasn’t held the 29-year-old back. Also co-founder of STLF, Tehven recently moved back to his hometown of Fargo, where he launched Emerging Prairie, an event-promotion consulting business as well as several nonprofit ventures to promote Fargo and overcome its “negative stereotypes.” As for investing, he and most of his friends avoid the stock market, preferring local real estate. “I invest in my community … in what I know,” he said.

Travis Erickson enjoys investing in the stock market, on the other hand, though his major focus is in his creative projects. The 25-year-old project manager at Hamline University takes what he describes as “a barbell” approach to work. His job gives him the financial stability at one end to concentrate on printmaking and launching his first folk-rock music CD, Meridian, with longtime friend and collaborator Jake Pavek.

Millennials may not be investing in housing, cars or the stock market to the extent economists and brokerage houses would like. But many are investing themselves in molding the world they will inhabit and, given what the economy has dished out over the past several years, are doing it with a grace, humor and enthusiasm that is refreshing.

And that’s no small potatoes.

 

Brad Allen is a Minneapolis freelance journalist and former investor relations executive for companies including Imation Corp. and Cray Research. His column appears ­monthly. His e-mail is brad@bdallen.com.