While the U.S. economy continues its climb out of the depths of the Great Recession, one cohort is having a particularly difficult time regaining its footing: millennials.
Far from monolithic, millennials are entering what should be the prime of their working lives and family-forming years. Instead, they face a daunting mix of economic challenges created by higher rates of under- and unemployment, stagnant incomes, lower levels of wealth than parents at a similar age, rising amounts of student debt, eroding safety nets, the supporting of an aging population, and shrinking public investment. As the millennial generation has matured (the oldest are in their mid-30s), they must now raise families and drive the economy while encumbered with weighty economic baggage.
The task of navigating this complex terrain is undermining aspirations, altering key life decisions and destabilizing a pillar of American life: the family. To be sure, family structures began changing long before this generation arrived on the scene. Today, there are many more single mothers, cohabiting parents and step-families — all of which can complicate child-rearing, workforce engagement, education, wealth accumulation and building community connections. Forty percent of mothers are now their family's primary breadwinner.
Yet even as the concept of what constitutes a family evolves, changing socioeconomic conditions are further disrupting its core foundations of support. In recent decades, significant economic shifts — the recession, the shrinking of our 20th-century manufacturing base, the sharp decline in family-run businesses, rising tuition — have limited families' social mobility. Technological innovation has created new opportunities, but also, for families who lack access, raised new barriers to economic and educational success, shutting off access to goods such as healthcare, social inclusion and civic participation. Today, one in five Americans do not have jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and job prospects for parents with low levels of education are concentrated in the low-wage service and retail sectors. As a result, America is now home to a growing number of vulnerable and financially insecure households.
By many measures, today's younger Americans face more significant economic challenges than younger Americans in previous generations. For example, 45 percent of all unemployed Americans — 5.6 million — are between the ages 18 and 34. Another 4.7 million young people are underemployed. In 2012, the labor force participation rate for young adults declined to the lowest level in four decades. Given the vanishing job opportunities, it comes as no surprise that nearly a quarter of 18-to-29-year olds — 21 million — live with their parents, a 46 percent increase since 2007.
Further, young adults' wealth profile is remarkably poorer. The typical young family has only $3,000 on hand to buffer against a financial emergency, leaving them ill-prepared to weather unexpected contingencies. Also, while middle-age and older Americans have recovered the wealth lost in the recession, younger Americans have recovered only about one-third. Looking back over the last quarter-century, older Americans have (in real terms) nearly doubled their wealth and middle-age Americans have increased their wealth by nearly two-thirds, but the wealth of younger Americans has actually declined. In fact, each generation born during the first half of the 20th century was wealthier than the one before, yet that pattern has broken down. Millennials, and many of the younger members of Generation X, have accumulated less wealth than their parents did at similar ages. Limited access to financial assets, job security and credentials has fed rising poverty, inequality and immobility. As a result, many families struggle to see a future beyond their immediate circumstances and fulfill their potential as parents, students, workers, entrepreneurs and members of their community. There is little doubt that millennials have come of age at a tough time. They got a raw deal.
Unfortunately, our current social policy framework is responding poorly. Designed for a 20th-century industrial era, it is out of step with contemporary realities. Although the economic, social and technological conditions have changed, our public policies are not keeping pace. As a result, the millennial generation is facing a new set of challenges accessing the basic building blocks of success: getting an education, finding a job, raising a family, managing finances and engaging socially and politically. It is time we rethink the basic arrangements of the social contract so it can respond to the unique circumstances of the millennial generation and is aligned with their attitudes, preferences and attributes.
We need to be advancing a set of policies capable of reversing downward mobility, supporting young families and cultivating resiliency. For starters, policymakers should acknowledge that this cohort needs attention. They should be offering means to increase access to educational and training opportunities, improve their economic prospects, make child rearing less costly and promote healthy families. Millennials are no longer just kids. They are older than you think, but they are still our future.
Cramer is director of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute based in Washington.