Will Millennials Be Left Behind?
I hope not, but it's not looking good.
Photo credit: Ryan Muir
Last night, I joined Open to Debate to discuss one of my favorite topics: Millennial life, and how Millennials are being left behind. I wanted to share a version of my argument here, because the truth is that while the outlook has improved somewhat for Millennial, things are still not looking great. And it was really something to attend a debate under an orange New York sky, a little insight into our dystopian future on a heating planet. Luckily, we were in a cellar, and so everyone could breathe. But the world above us was a stark reminder of all Millennials and those younger than us are inheriting.
I’ve added a bit to these remarks to flesh out the point, and I’ve included some data that I brought up later in the debate. And Millennials are of course not the only group suffering, or the only people in America who are unsupported. But we did grow up in a particular time and in a particular way, and that has imposed particular costs.
The result: Millennials are being left behind.
The foundation of the American dream is that each generation will do better than the one before. Millennials are the first American generation for which this American dream may not be realized.
And that’s despite the fact that Millennials have largely done things right. We went to college in record numbers. We delayed childbearing until we were more personally and financially stable. Contrary to stereotypes about avocado toast and overpriced lattes, we’ve been good savers. Still, we are well behind where our parents were are our age: We are less wealthy, have less upward mobility, are less happy, and enjoy far less political representation.
I was born in 1983, and I took what many Millennials will recognize as The Path — the road I was told to walk if I wanted to be happy, successful, and stable. I did well in high school and went to college. After college, I continued onto law school, which I paid for by taking on significant student loan debt. My father, a Boomer and the child of immigrants, did the same — except that he was able to pay for college and law school by working in the Chicago steel mills. I worked summers, too, and throughout the school year, but no summer job I could find would cover the nearly quarter of a million dollars my student loans eventually amounted to.
Two weeks into my freshman year of college, I watched out my dorm window as a second airplane hit the World Trade Center.
Seven years later, on my first day as a junior associate at a large Manhattan law firm, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the global economy swiftly followed. I was lucky to keep my job; many of my Millennial peers were not. The Great Recession, which came just as the older half of the Millennial generation was starting our professional lives, set us back from the start. We were often the last hired, first fired. We accepted jobs with suboptimal wages and suboptimal benefits, setting ourselves up for lower incomes going forward. Millennials were hit worse by the Great Recession than any other generation.
A decade later, in January 2020 and in large part because of Millennial women, women began to outnumber men in the paid workforce. But then: As Millennials were hitting our prime childbearing years, the Covid pandemic again upended the global economy. Millennials, again, were the worst-impacted generation, and the worst off of all were mothers – and single mothers of small children in particular. When the pandemic hit and schools shuttered, 5.1 million American mothers left the workforce, most of them Millennials. By mid-2021, 1.3 million still hadn’t returned, and the percentage of women in the workforce was the lowest it had been since the 1980s.
This is the story of Millennials: Major political and economic crises punctuating pivotal moments in our young adult lives.
The good news is that women’s workplace participation has largely recovered in the last two years. But it’s hard for Millennials to make up for these many, many setbacks. The effects of months or years out of work, and of accepting lower pay or worse jobs, are cumulative — they add up to lower incomes, less wealth, and less stability.
A few numbers:
According to 2023 estimates from the St. Louis Fed, Millennials and Gen Zers have 75 cents of wealth for every $1 that Gen Xers had at the same age. And Gen Xers and Millennials have 85 cents for every $1 Baby Boomers had.
The numbers are far worse for Black families, who have 25 cents of wealth for every $1 held by White families. For Hispanic families, it’s worse still: 24 cents of wealth for every $1 White families have.
The St. Louis Fed measures “wealth expectations,” or “how much wealth we expect a typical family to have at each age.” Millennials are 11% behind – and that’s being billed as progress, because calculations from a few years ago put us at 40% behind.
In 1989, Baby Boomers accounted for about 37% of the US population, and held about 21% of the wealth. By contrast, when Millennials were the same age, we accounted for 30% of the population and just 6% of the wealth.
Nearly 40 percent of older Millennials are predicted to lack adequate income to cover our basic needs when we’re 70. In other words: We’re going to broke in retirement.
We are the most racially diverse and best-educated adult generation in US history. And we also have the highest debt burden and see still-growing wealth inequality, often along racial lines.
The average White Millennial household has about $88,000 in wealth. The average Black Millennial household has only about $5,000 in wealth. That means White Millennial families are about 5% behind White families of previous generations. Black Millennials, though, are 52% behind Black families of previous generations. Not 52% behind previous generations — 52% behind Black families of previous generations, who were subjected to formal policies of discrimination.
Millennials are also radically underrepresented in the halls of power. It’s taking Millennials nearly a decade longer to reach the representation in Congress enjoyed by earlier generations. Baby Boomers stormed into Congress and basically never left — which is why the past decade has brought us the oldest Congresses in history.
I didn’t say this last night, but: The funny thing about arguing that your generation is screwed is that, while you think you’re right, you really hope you’re wrong. I am heartened by the fact that the last few years of economic boom times have improved the outlook for Millennials. I’m less heartened by the fact that these improvements seem to have come from a combination of Covid money (cash to Americans, child tax credits that were hugely beneficial for Millennial parents their kids) and the beginning of the largest wealth transfer in American history, from Boomer parents to their Millennial kids. The lion’s share of that money will flow from Boomers in the top 10 and 1 percent — and it will flow to the children who are already among the most privileged in America, and are not the Millennials who are being left behind at all. And much of that money was accrued thanks to huge increases in housing costs, which have benefitted long-time home owners — and White home owners have particularly benefitted from discriminatory laws that kept Black buyers out of the market and out of particular neighborhoods, and have created a housing scarcity that drives up prices.
I’m one of the lucky Millennials who is doing ok. I graduated from college and law school, and even with student loan debt (yes, still) I have been able to build a life that feels in line with my values and aspirations. I’m not nearly as financially stable as I hoped I would be at almost-40 (please don’t ask me about my retirement account) and I benefit from profound inequities in the American system (i.e., I got married and my husband has employer-sponsored health insurance), but I am not the picture of the struggling Millennial — the single mom doing gig work to stay afloat; the first-generation student who took out loans to attend a predatory for-profit college they didn’t graduate from. At the same time, I am not exactly the picture of the perfectly stable adult staring down middle age, either. I am very happy and very lucky; the flip side of instability is having opportunities my parents didn’t, and making choices that sent me toward passion rather than steadiness. And also, my life and those of my peers do not look like what we imagined they would at this age.
Millennials are a radically unequal generation, reflecting the stark inequality that took root in America as we were coming into the world, and has only ballooned since. I don’t foresee all Millennials being left behind. I foresee a privileged few doing great, a huge majority floundering — many doing worse than their parents, most doing much worse in comparison to their peers at the top. This is our generational emergency. And it’s one we have largely been blocked from fixing, cut out as we are from political power.