To plenty of older adults, millennials are spoiled, self-centered, needy kids who need a trophy for everything they do. But maybe the olds just say this because they feel so bad about passing on a world full of so many problems. The oldest millennials in the US were just starting their careers right at the start of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And between that still-healing job market and a host of other problems, many millennials have had a rough go of it. Here are 11 charts that show just how tough it is to be a young adult in the US these days.
1) Millennials started off on the wrong foot
Younger millennials (age 16 to 24) are far more unemployed than the rest of the US. This chart shows that that's in fact not a huge deal, in the sense that young adults always have a higher unemployment rate than older Americans. What is a huge problem is that starting around 2008, mid-recession, young adults faced a job market in free fall. That meant millennials exiting high school or college until recently have either found no jobs or jobs that didn't use their full skills (and didn't pay them much either). As of 2012, the AP reported, half of recent college graduates were underemployed or unemployed, and recent surveys suggest the problem hasn't gone away. All of that started many young adults earning and learning little at their first jobs, setting them on a path of lower pay and starting them even lower on the job ladder than they otherwise would have been. According to a 2013 report from Georgetown University, young adults today now don't earn the median wage until 30 — that's four years later than for young adults in 1980.
2) They're getting more educated but paid less
Really, these two Census snapshots together sum up many of the frustrations of the millennial generation. Young adults are getting better educated than any other generation in US history, but their incomes have fallen off over the course of a decade. One big part of that, however, is a group that doesn't have college degrees — young men with only high school diplomas have seen their annual pay drop off drastically over the years. But it is still true that a college diploma doesn't have the return on investment that it used to, because...
3) The youngest college graduates are really seeing lower earnings
Unlike the previous chart, this only represents the earnings of a smaller subset of millennials — those age 21 to 24 with college diplomas but without advanced degrees. And it shows two big problems. One, clearly the value of a college degree alone to a young worker has slid considerably since 2000. And two, the gender wage gap among these young college graduates remains alive and well.
4) Almost one in three young adults is living with Mom and Dad
One big consequence of the recession was that more and more young adults found themselves living with Mom and Dad. That share climbed by nearly five percentage points to hit nearly 32 percent after the recession, according to figures compiled by Trulia. Aside from its obvious relationship with the economy, this figure is intertwined with other cultural factors, like marrying later, getting more education, and a growing acceptance of later and later "adulthood" — but unlike skyrocketing unemployment, those aren't all considered bad things.
5) Young adults aren't buying houses
As with the unemployment rate, the importance of this trend is easy to overstate. Trulia Economist Jed Kolko makes a convincing case that while the millennial homeownership rate has plummeted, this is in part due to demographic changes like later marriage and household formation. (The homeownership of middle-agers is what we should really worry about, he writes.) But the young adult homeownership rate did bottom out this year, and Kolko has also shown that it's not exactly improving alongside the rest of the economy. Even while young adults are leaving their parents' homes, they don't all appear to be getting their own places yet — the rate at which they are starting their own households (be they rented or bought) isn't increasing. That means they might still be stuck in relatives' or friends' homes, rather than striking out on their own.
6) They can afford homes, but only in places they don't want to be
If you're a 20-something looking for a house, you're in luck: affordable homes exist — just not where you want to live. According to a recent analysis, the affordability of a home in a given city (broadly speaking) is inversely correlated to how much millennials actually want to live there.
7) They don't have any assets built up
All that student debt + no homes + lower incomes = lower wealth. Once again, it's true that student debt often pays off for people (that is, compared to not having a diploma at all) but for now, young adults are, when compared to almost 20 years ago, far behind most older generations when it comes to wealth-building. The oldest millennials only had a median net worth of around $17,400 as of 2013 — half of what people born between 1957 and 1980 had at the same age, according to a New America Foundation report.
8) They're not voting
You can blame a lot of these problems on older generations, but this one we youngsters could do a much, much better job on. Voting participation has fallen off for all ages, but young adults remain at the bottom, with only 38 percent participation in the 2012 elections. And in the 2014 elections, the youngest voters (age 18 to 29) once again had the lowest participation, according to exit polls, at 13 percent. It is, of course, true that getting out of their low-paying, low-skilled jobs to get to the polls is hard for many millennials. But hopefully we can pick this number up at least somewhat. If millennials want to change what's wrong in their lives, actually saying something about it would be a start.
9) Their retirement incomes are in jeopardy
One more reason for youngsters to vote: as it stands right now, their retirement incomes are threatened. The Social Security Trust Fund is expected to run dry sometime in the 2020s or 2030s. That won't mean tomorrow's retirees will have zero payouts, but it could mean smaller payouts — the Social Security Administration has predicted that it will only be able to pay out 75 percent of benefits from 2033 to 2088.
10) Their world is set to be hotter, and their chances of fixing it are getting smaller all the time
If the world continues emitting carbon dioxide at its current rate, the global temperature could end up nearly five degrees Celsius above where it was pre-industrialization. If that happens, there's no knowing exactly what could happen, but it could be catastrophic, as Vox's Brad Plumer wrote earlier this year — global food production could be threatened, farmland could disappear under rising sea. And the longer the world waits to deal with these problems, the harder it will get to reverse the effects.
11) They don't trust anyone
Well after all that mayhem, no wonder. Young adults today just don't trust anyone, and it doesn't appear to be a function of age — when the silent generation, boomers, and Gen X were young, they were bright-eyed and
naive as hell trusting in their fellow humans (though for Gen X, it fell off for a while in the 1990s). Cynical millennials have little room to fall on this front, with only around 1 in 5 saying that "most people can be trusted," so maybe they can rebound like their older peers.
Not that it's all bad
This all has been an exercise in concentrated pessimism, but take heart: there are a few bright spots. they're increasingly investing for their retirements and, as I wrote a few times above, they're more educated than any previous generation (the benefits of which aren't solely quantifiable in terms of wages or employment).
Really, the point here isn't so much that American millennials are doomed — that they're going to be destitute and living in sorrow and squalor their whole lives. Rather, the point is that the roadmap for millennials is drastically changed from where it was for their parents and even older siblings: a college degree is no longer a guarantee of a good-paying job, the hallmarks of adulthood (marriage, a house, kids) are coming later (if at all) for many, and they are altogether imbued with a lot more distrust and cynicism than previous generations.
That said, Pew found that millennials are just as optimistic about their economic prospects as Gen X was when they were younger. So maybe Millennials just understand that the economy (and their situations) will get better. Or they're just
naive as hell really resilient.