Adam Hanft channels Ben Franklin in a letter to the Millennial Generation.

Back in my day – the 1700s — we didn’t name generations; we didn’t even think of people in sociological (or journalistic) slices. We thought a lot more about the ideas that brought people together. You know, the “universal rights of man” – how politically incorrect was that! – and “certain inalienable rights” and other Enlightenment ideas that took precedence.

These principles were the foundations of the social “cohorts” you now take for granted. You can’t come up with nifty segments like “Boomers” and “Millennials” and “The Greatest Generation,” unless you first establish that men and women exist outside of the state, and that the pursuit of happiness – however much that has devolved into pursuing Facebook “likes” – is something we all are deserving of.

But enough of my 18th century tendency to wander. I’ve been asked specifically to talk to Millennials about #5 on my list of 13 virtues, and that is “Frugality.” I was asked because some opportunist named Adam Hanft wrote a piece where he called you guys “The Ben Franklin Generation.”

His point, well-taken, was that Millennials have surprisingly taken up the pursuit of many of the virtues I espoused. But of course, I would never be so profligate with my name as to attach it to a group and “brand? them. On the contrary, I prefer to the freedom of pseudonyms like Richard Saunders, Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue.

Back to frugality, which I described as follows:

“Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

Wow. Sounds no noble. Let me start by pointing out that I wrote these “virtues” when I was 20 – I left home when I was 17.   By contrast, a little Internet research has revealed that something like 47% of Millennial men, and 36% of women, still live at home.

By the way, that Internet thing is really great; if it was around back in the day, I wouldn’t have bothered to invent the library. Would probably have spent some time on a start-up. Wait a minute, I did….

So you’re already displaying the frugality virtue by “wasting nothing” when it comes to rent, mortgages, and extravagances from West Elm.   In fact, Goldman Sachs is telling me that in general, you’re adverse to buying things. Very Franklinian.

“Millennials have been reluctant to buy items such as cars, music and luxury goods. Instead, they’re turning to a new set of services that provide access to products without the burdens of ownership, giving rise to what’s being called a “sharing economy.”

Imagine if you could roll back the consumerist machine to something more like we had in the Colonial days.   Back then, for people in “close-knit” farm communities of the Northeast, sharing was a way of life. It warms my heart to see the way Millennials are returning to many of our early virtues; shaving with a straight razor, learning to farm, and of course, a personal favorite: beer-making.

I’m also excited to read that you are starting to invest earlier than previous generations, which is one of the facts that spun Hanft up. The average age your investing in mutual funds is 23; boomers were in their thirties. And 80% of you were so rattled by the recession that you want to save more right now, and more than half of Millennials are socking money away regularly.

In some ways, though, you’re already screwed. I’m talking about college loans. Let me cover my butt right off and say that even though I established the University of Pennsylvania, and I never expected that young women and men would have to borrow to afford it. In fact, in my “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania” I wrote the following. (BTW, that’s not a typo, Pennsylvania could also be spelled like Transilvania”)

“Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country. Italics added, to make it clear that I thought government should bear the cost of education. Today, the average student graduates with $25,000 in debt from a public college, and it’s $40,000 at a private for-profit college.


Hey, I’m the guy who wrote in his autobiography that you need to live “…free from Debt, which exposes a Man to Confinement and a Species of Slavery to his Creditors.”

So you’re instincts for frugality are challenged by this debt, which you need to pay off using the smartest strategies around. Don’t waste time on Minecraft when you could be researching this; some of your options are far better than others. Remember my sixth virtue, which is Industry: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

One last point about frugality, which I take from your Wikipedia – quite a wondrous invention that very much conforms to my third virtue of “Order.”Wiki defines frugality as being “sparing, thrifty, prudent or economical in the consumption of consumable resources such as food, time or money, and avoiding waste, lavishness or extravagance.”

I quite favor this expansion of my notion of “frugality” into the concepts of sustainability and resource consumption. Back in my day, before even the Industrial Revolution let alone the consumer society – when we saw America as a vast and unending richly-endowed, continent – we never thought about the need to use resources sparingly.   So I am more than encouraged by what I read in places like the Pew Study, where they write “Young People Far More Likely to Prioritize Developing Alternative Energy.”

What I am hoping is that this modest conversation is just the beginning, and that some of you will take this idea of applying “frugality” more deeply into your thinking and your lives with real seriousness.   We sure need to. Modern societies have construed, in their infinite cleverness, the ability to generate ever more kinds of frugality-demanding waste than I ever imagined. I mean, one-third of all food the world produces is thrown away.

Millennials, I am counting on you. . Start a Ben Franklin Circle and see where it goes. More than a dozen signers of the Declaration of Independence were under 35 . We’ve done it before.


Adam Hanft is a brand strategist, cultural critic and adviser to leading companies and brands – including digital start-ups around the world.