But in some ways, millennials are also the luckiest.
For one thing, they're living in an age of affordable abundance. Food has never been cheaper as a share of the typical American family budget. The price of apparel is also falling relative to wages. The Internet, while no substitute for gainful employment, has made many things cheaper that used to take extra income to buy — communication, notably, including private information-sharing and professional collaboration. It has made casual retail cheaper (and more convenient). It has also made mass entertainment cheaper, especially music and amateur videos. These commodities have grown cheaper, in part, by replacing and lowering the cost of human work.
That we live in a golden era of cheap essentials and entertainment might register as cold statistical comfort for the millions of unemployed millennials who watch their dreams fade with every passing year. This group can hope for another mitigating factor: time. The U.S. economy is expected to continue its recovery — unemployment falling, wages rising, debts slowly getting repaid, life going on as it did before 2008. In an economy that is now creating 200,000 private-sector jobs a month, the total debt held by young adults has shrunk to its lowest level in 15 years.
Even if millennials haven't read about these trends, they seem to feel them in their bones. The Pew study that found twentysomethings moving back home also reported that nine in 10 millennials said they already earn (or have) enough money, or expect to in the future. If optimism has any currency, the millennials may well outgrow their miserable circumstances and bequeath to their own children a more prosperous nation than their parents left for them. They're the best-educated generation in American history, moving into their prime working years while home prices remain fairly cheap. Is that so unlucky?
Still, their timing couldn't be unluckier. The past 30 years have seen enduring income stagnation capped by an economic collapse. Average household wealth nearly doubled between 1983 and 2010, the Urban Institute recently found, but younger generations shouldn't expect the same. They already lag their parents in wealth (by 7 percent) at the equivalent age, and "now, stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values may be merging to paint a vastly different future for Gen X and Gen Y," Eugene Steuerle and three coauthors concluded. "Despite their relative youth, they may not be able to make up the lost ground."
The writer is a senior editor at The Atlantic.
It costs a lot to be a grown-up. It means more than saying "please" or holding doors for the elderly, although those are nice to do. It also means moving out of your parents' home, renting a place of your own, paying for food and clothes, buying a car, getting married, having children, buying a house — all the trappings and expenses of a middle-class life.