Less millennial financial security? Recall bias and the comparability of findings

Piggy bank

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In comparing two groups of Singaporeans – 311 millennials aged between 19 and 35 and 200 individuals aged between 60 and 69 (born between 1950 and 1959, thus part of the Merdeka Generation) – the focus of the research was on perceptions of life as a young Singaporean. In other words, the millennials were asked to reflect on their current life in the country today, whereas those belonging to the Merdeka Generation were asked to reflect on their life as a millennial during the 1970s and 1980s.

Both groups were asked to reflect on seven aspects of their life: Quality of life, financial security, work-life balance, career aspirations, healthcare, making an impact, as well as family, friendship and dating. TODAY focused on the claim that “millennials feel less financially secure than Merdeka Generation did in their youth” (TODAY, Nov. 20).

Besides the important and persistent limitation – as with many news reports of such research or publications and the surveys themselves – that the sampling or survey methodology is not often well-explicated or even transparent (for instance, how the sample was drawn and the response rate, beyond just the sample size), there are also the two issues of hindsight bias and the comparability of findings.

First, although all surveys are inevitably riddled with self-response (respondents may not provide accurate responses) and social desirability (respondents may present themselves more positively than their actual condition) biases, recall bias is likely to characterise the responses of those belonging to the Merdeka Generation. Especially given the passage of time – over 50 to 60 years – they may exaggerate positive experiences, omit negatives ones, or fail to remember the circumstances as they were. In any scenario, the validity of their responses will be in question, and as a consequence the experiential comparability of millennials and the Merdeka Generation in their youth is in question.

Put otherwise: Whether the survey can effectively compare these two groups in the first place is not a given.

Second, even if the groups can be compared, the manner in which the comparisons have been presented is problematic. There is no mention if the differences in percentages or proportions are statistically significant (the 1.1 percentage point gap between 48.6 per cent of millennials and 47.5 per cent of the Merdeka Generation looking at their younger days indicating “I am confident of job security” may not be statistically significant). It is also not clear if respondents gave dichotomous responses (that is, yes or no) or indicated on a Likert scale (such as ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree, on a five-point scale).

Finally, with financial security – which TODAY emphasised in its headline – the study offered no useful explanations for the seemingly conflicting findings with financial security. Millennials are more likely to perceive themselves having financial stability and being able to achieve financial independent, but they are less likely to think that they can afford the cost of living. These limitations deserve greater attention if the study and its findings are to be taken more seriously.

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