Why Are Millennials So Darn Optimistic?

110 friends smiling Todd Baker.jpg

Confident. Connected. Open to Change. That's how Pew Research defines the Millennial generation -- Americans born since 1980. We're socially liberal, technologically savvy and wildly optimistic.

Wait ... wildly optimistic? In these economic times? Actually, as National Journal's Eliza Krigman points out, our optimism is only growing, recession be damned:

Based on previous Pew research, Millennials are actually slightly more optimistic about their future earning potential than they were in 2006, before the recession.

There's nothing wrong with sunniness, but rising optimism through a recession has the whiff of naivité. As the Atlantic's Don Peck wrote in our brilliant new cover story, young Americans have lots of reasons to be pessimistic:

A whole generation of young adults is likely to see its life chances permanently diminished by this recession. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale ... found that, all else equal, for every one-percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate, the starting income of new graduates fell by as much as 7 percent; the unluckiest graduates of the decade, who emerged into the teeth of the 1981-82 recession, made roughly 25 percent less in their first year than graduates who stepped into boom times...

But what's truly remarkable is the persistence of the earnings gap. Five, 10, 15 years after graduation, after untold promotions and career changes spanning booms and busts, the unlucky graduates never closed the gap.

Something is going on here (even though I'm not sure I have enough perspective to comment on it thoroughly). For years my generation has been told we are the smartest, savviest, most self-assured generation in, well, generations. In the last two years, that unstoppable promise has hit an immovable job market. The implications of that collision cannot be diagnosed yet, but they will be serious, and enduring.

(Photo: Flickr/ToddBaker)

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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