Logan Steiner, a 20-year-old college senior living in Meadville, Pennsylvania, takes a similar view. "I just feel like our educational systems have improved," said Steiner, who is studying physics. "I'm not saying they're perfect, but they've been improving and they'll keep improving." On the other hand, he adds, "it is harder because you're expected to know more and be up to date with technology. It's more competitive."
At 39, Pavel Kostadinov, a hotel bellman in Naples, Florida with two children, is further along in his life than Reeves or Steiner. But he too worries about the opportunities available to younger generations. "People around me generally have fewer opportunities than I think they had 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "I see people who want to move ahead and move higher, but there's nowhere to go."
Generational differences reemerged on a final measure: By more than seven-to-one, older respondents thought it was tougher rather than easier for those starting out today to "start and support a family." Young people, again, weren't quite as pessimistic—but still they agreed by a margin of nearly three-to-one that starting a family is tougher today.
When asked to consider all of these factors, an overwhelming 80 percent of older respondents thought that it was harder "for young people today to get started in life," while only 13 percent thought it was easier. Among the younger group, 27 percent thought it was easier to get started today, double the share among older respondents. Even so, a resounding 68 percent of younger respondents still thought it was tougher.
Looking specifically at younger people still starting out, the survey found relatively few demographic differences along lines of race or gender in their assessments of these challenges. (One exception: Whites were considerably more likely than nonwhites to say that it was tougher overall for young people to get started today.) But one experience clearly split the younger cohort: The substantial 45 percent of younger people with student loans were consistently more downbeat than the 55 percent without them.
Those in the younger group who are holding student debt were considerably more likely than those without such debts to say that it was tougher overall for young people to get started today. While 32 percent of younger people without such debts said it was easier for those starting out today, only 22 percent of those with student loans agreed; fully 75 percent of the younger group with loans said it was tougher to get started, compared to 63 percent of those without them.
Those in the younger group with loans were also more likely than those without them to say it was tougher today to manage personal finances and control debt, and to describe it as tougher to start a family. The weight of student-loan debt may be one reason for the surprising finding that those in the younger group with college degrees were actually slightly more likely than those without them to say that it was tougher overall to get started today.