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5 ways America is failing Millennials — and what to do about it

Can't stop, won't stop moving
Can't stop, won't stop moving

If you're between 18 and 34 years old, you should be getting ready for the prime of your life — at least according to recent history. That means getting a high-quality education, working a secure, fulfilling job, starting a family, and maybe even buying a home.

But for most Millennials, that picture no longer vibes with reality. The Great Recession derailed many young people, and spawned an atmosphere of economic precariousness that's undermining their potential, reordering their aspirations, and complicating their key life decisions. Yet there has been little recognition in Washington that this generation faces a unique set of challenges, leaving big disconnect between experience and a public policy response.

While young people may hold themselves accountable for failure, they didn't build this. They aren't the ones who crafted the public policies that created such widespread instability. The "failure to launch" phenomenon has not occurred in a vacuum. The combination of the job-killing Great Recession and a general rollback in social protections, typified by a push to deregulate markets and replace pensions with individual 401(k)-type retirement plans, has saddled individuals with risks that were previously collectivized.

Here's a brief look at what this generational disconnect looks like in five key areas.

1) Work and the Economy

Parents of this generation really can say that things were better back in their day. For most young people, adult life has been characterized by downward mobility. The large-scale loss of jobs in the years following the recession and the slow recovery has made it difficult to climb the economic ladder. In 2012, 45 percent of all unemployed Americans-5.6 million-were between ages 18 and 34. The unemployment rate for this age group remains higher than it was in the 1990s and the labor force participation rate for young adults declined to the lowest level in four decades in 2012. The drive for cost-cutting and flexibility among employers has led to a rise in freelance and contract work, which shortens employment tenure, contributes to an overall decline in income, and means that fewer young workers are receiving traditional employer benefits. It is increasingly common for young adults to resort to a stringing together of multiple part-time jobs. Despite this experience, there is scant attention being paid to large-scale job creation initiatives, efforts to systematically raise incomes, or rethinking the welfare state so that it works for young people today.

2) The Future of Building Wealth

It used to be that each generation born during the first half of the 20th century was wealthier than the one before. That pattern has broken down. This generation, and many of the younger Gen Xers, have accumulated less wealth than their parents did at similar ages. The median net worth for families headed by an individual under the age of 35 is currently around $10,000, which is $7,000 less (in 2013 dollars) than it was in 1995, a 41 percent decline. Those anemic numbers mean young people aren't prepared to invest in assets and accumulate the wealth that comes from buying a home, for example. While middle age and older Americans have recovered much of the wealth lost in the recession, younger Americans have recovered only about one-third. Without public policy aimed at helping restore their balance sheets, Millennials will be playing catch-up for years to come to achieve their parents' levels of net worth.

3) Education and Training

Many young adults spent the recession in hibernation - in other words, getting their graduate degree. If we're measuring education by credentials, this generation is better educated than the last two. The share of 25- to 29-year-olds with a bachelor's degree has grown by almost 50 percent since the early 1980s. That was all part of a grand bargain between student and university on which the university is now reneging. If you invest time and money in college — you earn more by becoming more valuable to the marketplace. That's no longer true. The college wage premium (the difference in income between college grads and high school grads) has been stagnant for more than a decade, and colleges may not be preparing the next generation as well as we thought. In other words — this generation is spending more, and getting less. But really, we all may be getting less.

4) Work and Family

Millennials are making a new set of choices about family - and some of those decisions are tied to their working opportunities and economic prospects. They are less likely to marry than older generations. When they do marry, they are older. Today, the median age for a first marriage is about five years older than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Having children is less popular than it use to be. The birth rate in the U.S. recently fell to a record low, dropping for the fifth straight year. Today, 29 percent of women ages 18 to 29 has ever had children; in 1998, that figure was 41 percent. One new post-recovery work trend is destabilizing family life and making prospective parents fearful of having kids: it's "just-in-time" scheduling — or the move in retail and service jobs towards unpredictable hours and unpredictable wages. Of course, the story of families struggling in low-wage, part-time jobs without adequate public support is only a new experience for some Americans: namely, the white middle class.

5) Social Engagement and Political Participation

This is a generation that's allergic to vitriolic partisanship. Many have remained on the sidelines of many political debates. Yet they overwhelmingly support a stronger role for government to make the economy work better, provide services, and help those in need. Although young people have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions than previous generations, they are connected to personalized networks of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, which offer new tools for organizing collective action. The sheer size of the generation will make them an increasingly influential demographic. By 2020, Millennials will make up more than one in three adult Americans (and 39 percent of eligible voters), and by 2025, today's youth will comprise as much as 75 percent of the U.S. workforce. In the years ahead, their preferences will increasingly set the political agenda.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Without much doubt, the Millennial experience is distinct — and requires a distinct set of policy solutions. Demographically, they're the most diverse generation in American history and their openness to alternative lifestyles means there is no longer a typical life trajectory. In fact, the very idea of a "typical" American is already starting to lose much of its meaning. Marriage, homeownership, and family no longer provide a standard blueprint for success.

The paradox is that even as members of this generation have a greater degree of discretion in the choices they make, their economic outlook is limiting their options.

At issue is whether or not American institutions, both governmental and in the private sector, can respond to the unique circumstances of young adults in ways that are aligned with the generation's prevalent attitudes, preferences, and attributes. Millennials need a policy agenda capable of reversing downward mobility, increasing access to affordable education and training, supporting young families, making child rearing less costly, and cultivating economic resiliency. Millennials are no longer just kids. They are older than you think, but they are still our future.

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