Finding a good job as a young adult has always been a game of chance. But more and more, the rules have changed: Heads, you lose; tails, you're disqualified. The unemployment rate for young people scraped 18 percent in 2010, and in the past five years, real wages have fallen for millennials--and only for millennials.
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.
These life stages drive a consumer economy. "Housing IS the Business Cycle" is the memorably brief title of a 2007 study by University of California (Los Angeles) economist Edward E. Leamer showing that the housing market both presages recessions and bolsters recoveries. A generation that buys new homes is a generation that pushes the economy forward.
But millennials have responded with a collective "No, thanks." Or at least "Not yet." More than one in five Americans ages 18-34 told Pew Research Center pollsters last year that they've postponed having a baby "because of the bad economy." The same proportion said they were holding off marriage until the economy recovered. More than a third of 25- to 29-year-olds had moved back in with their parents. Millennials have been scorned as perma-children, forever postponing adulthood, or labeled with that most un-American of character flaws: helplessness.
The case for pessimism is depressingly easy to make. Even after the economy recovers, the penalty for graduating into a recession may still apply to young people's wages. When Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, studied how the 1981-82 recession affected the lifetime earnings of young workers who graduated during the 1980s, she found that for every percentage-point increase in total unemployment, the starting incomes of new graduates slipped by as much as 7 percent. Two decades later, because of their bad timing, these graduates had taken a $100,000 hit to their cumulative earnings.
If this pattern applies to millennials, the consequences will be grim for an economy that relies on big-ticket items such as houses and cars. Half of a typical family's spending goes to transportation and housing. But Americans ages 21-34 bought only 27 percent of the new vehicles sold in the United States in 2010, compared with 38 percent in 1985; from 2008 to '11, only half as many young Americans as a decade earlier acquired their first mortgage. Having been rejected by the economy, millennials are in turn rejecting cars and houses--the pillars of the modern consumer economy.
Life Gets Better (and Cheaper)
Still, do millennials really count as the unluckiest generation since World War II? It's true that wages haven't grown this slowly in decades, and globalization and technology have held down wages for millions of young workers to an unprecedented extent.