Millennials, the largest generation in United States history, have been given a bombastic, terrible name and, courtesy of their parents, a reputation as the workplace malcontents. The self-serving Baby Boomer criticism of “kids these days” has become so common that it’s basically a genre of its own. Those born between 1980 and 2000 make up an estimated one-third of the total U.S. population and, to hear their elders tell it, receive too many trophies and blue ribbons, which is why they are entitled and mopey. Unlike their boomer parents (who apparently invented music, equality, and San Francisco), young people just don’t get that nebulous it that is the happy pursuit of an American Dream.
Yes, there are cultural issues that may exacerbate the divide between the olds and the youngs, but there are also numbers. And they tell a very different story about a generation trying to find its way.
“Perhaps the most important marker for Millennials is that many of them have come of age during a very difficult time in our economy, as the oldest Millennials were just 27 years old when the recession began in December 2007,” reported the Council of Economic Advisers in 2014. “Their early adult lives have been shaped by the experience of establishing their careers at a time when economic opportunities are relatively scarce. Today, although the economy is well into its recovery, the recession still affects the lives of Millennials and will likely continue to do so for years to come.”
The millennial economic experience can’t be branded by personality deficiencies — it all comes back to hard, cold numbers.
The Middle Class Is a Smaller Target to Hit
About half of the millennial generation is currently aged 25 to 35, meaning that they’re increasingly economically independent. For previous generations, achieving a measure of financial freedom often meant joining the middle class, but Bernie Sanders isn’t lying: The middle class is shrinking. In 2015, 20 percent of American adults made up the lowest-income tier. In 1971, when most millennials’ baby boomer parents (probably born between 1946 and 1964) entered their early 20s, that number was 16 percent. This, combined with the uptick in the highest income tier makes for a smaller middle class — 61 percent of Americans were a part of the middle class in 1971 compared to 50 percent of Americans in 2015. If the economic inequality between the 99 and one percent hadn’t widened as it has, the middle class of now would be flushed with a lot more income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average income of middle-of-the road American households would have increased by about 23 percent if inequality hadn’t widened between 1979 and 2015. As it stands, making middle class wages is something of an achievement for someone new to the workforce.
The Gap Between Wages and Productivity is Growing
Between 1948 and 1973, rates of productivity and hour compensation soared together - a respective increase of 96.7 percent and 91.3 percent. The “Greatest Generation” was handsomely rewarded for its work. But, beginning in 1973, hourly compensation teetered off while productivity continued to rise — meaning more, and more work without more pay. This was probably felt by baby boomers in the workforce when they were the ages millennials are now, but it’s felt even more by the twenty and thirty-somethings of today. From 1973 to 2013 the productivity of the typical American worker rose by about 75 percent while wages only increased by 9 percent. Today’s young workers, tethered to their offices by smartphones, are paid historically little for their economic contributions.
College Diplomas Have Become Participation Trophies for Adults
The Economic Policy Institute also reports that the earning power of young college graduates has decreased since 2000 (when those born in 1980 were trying on caps), in part because the hourly wages of post-graduate professionals, once adjusted for inflation, are lower than they were in the late 1990s. According to Goldman Sachs, these lower income levels have left millennials with less money than previous generations. A high school diploma means less for millennials as well — in 1979 a high school graduate could earn about 77 percent of what a college graduate made; today, high school graduates earn about 62 percent of what typical college graduates usually make.
College, for all it’s unquantifiable benefits, not only doesn’t guarantee earnings but is also likely to set millennials back right when they’re trying to enter the workforce. Between 2003 and 2013 the mean student loan balance for 25-year olds increased by $10,926. That’s due to the ever-rising cost of college tuition; as Paul Campos writes in the New York Times, “If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.”
Young People Work With Generation Xers, Who are Royally Screwed
Life as a financially independent adult isn’t just harder for Millennials when compared to their Baby Boomer parents — it’s even worse for Generation X. The generation born between 1965 and 1982 (including Kanye West regardless of what he says) was seemingly hit hardest by the recession — on average they lost about half of their wealth, compared to the 25 percent loss felt by baby boomers. They are considered the generation the most ill-equipped to retire — while millennials are encountering an unfriendly job market, the Gen X’ers were hit by the recession just as they were in the thick of building their adult lives, meaning that whatever debt they accumulated through education and home-owning loans was only compounded.
So hush, baby boomers. You weren’t trying to do this whole be-an-adult thing at the same time public transportation services are planning on increasing their fares every two years. Retire already so we can make enough to pay your social security and invest in the anti-aging technology that will keep us working into our third century.