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Millennials’ values and preferences are driving changes in the food industry and shaping the future of food consumption

Sylvain CharleboisMillennials now outnumber Boomers in our country, according to Statistics Canada. As of July 1, 2023, the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) has surpassed the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1965) in population size for the first time.

Boosted by immigration, Canada’s median age has dropped to 40.6 from 41.0 just two years ago. Consequently, Canada is more populous, younger, and no longer dominated by Boomers. Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) is expanding and has surpassed Generation X (born between 1966 and 1980) to become Canada’s third-largest generation, projected to become the largest within the next 30 years.

The implications of a growing and younger population for the food industry are multifaceted.

Millennials differ from other generations in their racial diversity, higher education levels, and technological literacy. They also face financial hardships later in life, unlike previous generations that typically encountered a challenging job market or an unforgiving economy at a younger age. Now at their economic prime, with some having families, Millennials are feeling the financial pinch from higher interest rates and rents. After a period of low unemployment and cheap money, this generation faces a severe financial reality check.

Millennials food industry

Photo by Alex Haney

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This shift is evident in their grocery shopping habits. Over 86 percent of Millennials are actively seeking discounts, and over 66 percent have switched primary grocery stores in the last 12 months to find better deals, both percentages being the highest of all generations. Additionally, 43 percent are using food-rescuing apps to buy expiring food at a discount, again the highest usage percentage of all generations. The economic and financial transition Millennials had to navigate has been drastic.

In the past, Millennials frequented specialty stores, preferring food options that were fresh, natural, eco-friendly, and clearly labelled. However, financial reality has led them to alter their priorities. Nonetheless, their core values remain intact, and as they become more economically influential, they will shape the food industry. Millennials’ inclination towards culturally diverse foods and frequent snacking continues to affect supermarkets and food service businesses. According to our latest survey, 28.3 percent of Millennials often substitute snacks for traditional meals, a sharp contrast to the mere 8.7 percent of Baby Boomers who do the same, with lunch being the most common meal replaced.

Interestingly, Millennials rely on friends and family as their primary source of information about food, unlike Boomers, who turn to health professionals. Millennials also pay close attention to food labels. Supported by social media, they have challenged the food industry, advocating for clean labelling, better sourcing of ingredients, and healthier options. Despite facing financial challenges, they will likely continue to influence the industry and rely on the growing Gen Z group to push for changes that benefit all.

As the food industry adapts to the evolving preferences of Millennials, it will also need to anticipate the emerging trends brought by Generation Z. Gen Z’s values, shaped by their digital-native upbringing and heightened social and environmental awareness, will further push the industry towards transparency, sustainability, and innovation.

For instance, Gen Z’s preference for alternative protein sources will likely accelerate the shift towards more sustainable food production. Their comfort with technology will also drive the adoption of online grocery shopping and food delivery services, which have already seen a surge during the pandemic and beyond.

Moreover, Gen Z’s emphasis on authenticity and experiences may lead to a rise in experiential dining, which refers to going beyond just eating and focusing on creating a memorable and immersive experience for the diner and unique food offerings. They are also more likely to support local and small-scale producers, aligning with their values of sustainability and community.

As Millennials continue to exert their influence on the food industry, the upcoming Gen Z cohort will bring its own set of preferences and values, further shaping the future of food. Understanding and adapting to these generational shifts will be crucial for businesses in the food sector to stay relevant and thrive in the years to come.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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