Can Millennials Undo What the Recession Did to Their Earnings?

Not without help

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Millennials should, theoretically, be the highest-paid cohort of young adults in American history: They’re the most educated group of workers and have entered the labor market at a time of high and increasing productivity.

But thanks to a recession, a slow recovery, and staggering amounts of student debt, that hasn’t happened. To turn the tide of their financial futures, a new report says, it won’t be enough for Millennials to work harder—they need help from legislators.

The report, published by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, compares the median earnings for a 30-year-old Millennial in 2014, a 30-year-old Gen Xer in 2004, and a 30-year-old Boomer in 1984. Brendan Duke, the study’s author and the associate director for economic policy at CAP, says that he chose to focus on 30-year-olds because it’s an age when people are likely to be working, to have more stable careers, to have decided whether or not to complete college, and to be starting families.

According to Duke’s research, today’s 30-year-olds make about as much as a 30-year-old would have in 1984—around $19.30 an hour—and a dollar less than a 30-year-old in 2004 (figures are adjusted for inflation). They’re no better off than their predecessors, despite the fact that a 30-year-old Millennial is 51 percent more likely to have finished college than a Boomer was, and 18 percent more likely than a Gen Xer. (For Millennials who haven’t earned a college degree, the outlook is worse than it would’ve been for 30-year-olds in a similar situation in past generations.) And Millennials, whom CAP defines as being born between 1981 and 1997, work in an economy that is 70 percent more productive than it was around 1984—an increase that would normally be expected to give them an advantage. “When I saw that the compensation of a 30-year-old today is practically stuck where it was 30 years ago I found that surprising and discouraging,” Duke says.

Education and skyrocketing productivity are often thought of as two of the most reliable ways for a cohort of workers’ compensation to increase, but neither is helping Millennials much. More than that, earnings early in one’s career can greatly influence the arc of earnings later on, which doesn’t bode well for the current generation of young adults.

The report suggests that Millennials don’t just have to accept a middling financial existence. Instead, Duke suggests that changing some policies could help bridge the gap going forward. For instance, Duke suggests that young workers could join unions and engage in collective bargaining, which would help them attain wage increases and more job security in an increasingly employer-friendly market. But a movement like that would face major hurdles. Even as the economy has improved, the percentage of Millennials in the workforce has remained low. They are also the least likely of any generation to belong to a union, and union membership on the whole has been on the decline in the past few decades, across all age groups.

With that in mind, CAP’s report advocates for government intervention, both when it comes to passing laws that would make union formation easier, and when it comes to monetary policy—one proposal being that the Fed keep interest rates low to spur growth and aid groups of workers with still-high unemployment.

There are other changes that might also improve Millennials’ lot. “Paid leave really represents an opportunity to do better,” Duke says. The report suggests that if successful, the current push for more robust leave policies could help Millennial women bridge the gender-wage disparity, which  is expected to start growing as more of the generation takes time off for birth, childcare, and caring for ailing relatives. On top of that, more generous leave policies would mean that women could not only take time away from the office without fear of a wage or promotion penalty, but also that men could do the same, creating a more equitable division of labor both at home and and work.

These changes might help boost income, but that still leaves the problem of heavily credentialed young people are spending ever-growing amounts of money to secure degrees that are ever less likely to guarantee them work. “I think people are kind of stuck in a catch-22 where they feel they need to get these skills in order to compete in the 21st century economy, but on the other hand they have to pay more tuition and take on more debt in order to do that,” Duke says.

That means that hope for improving the economic outlook of a group whose careers were sidetracked by the recession is going to be a particularly complex problem—one that they likely won’t be able to solve by themselves.