A new study from Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit dedicated to policy and assessment research, found that American millennials lagged behind their international peers in "literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments" — a disparity that puts the United States' position as a global leader at risk.
The report looked at the results of the 2012 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which measures the basic workplace skills of adults between the ages of 16 and 65. Though these results have been available for some time, the ETS study specifically looked at the performance of millennials, both because they've recently been through the education system and because they'll "shape the economic and social landscape of our country for many years to come," according to the study's authors.
The results weren't good. Compared to countries like Japan, Sweden and Australia, the United States came in at the lower end of the scale in every category.
To wit: The average score for literacy was 282; the United States received a score of 274.
For numeracy, the average score was 276; the United States came in dead last at 255. The average for adults aged 16 to 24 (249) was even worse.
For problem-solving in technology-rich environments, America came in second to last, scoring 284 when the average was 295.
It's happening across the board. The gap between the United States and the rest of the world even extended to the country's top-scoring participants. "Both our lower and higher performers score at the bottom with respect to their peers, and our inequality is among the highest of all participating countries," the study notes.
As Sarah D. Sparks at Education Week writes, even our most educated young people — those with post-baccalaureate degrees — measured below the scores of students with a bachelor's degree in some countries, and they scored roughly the same as students in other countries who had less than a bachelor's degree.
It's a sobering assessment, particularly in the face of the beliefs that trumpet the end-all, be-all nature of education. The prevailing wisdom ("as long as you're educated, you'll be fine") appears, in light of the ETS study, to be a faulty premise.
"We have a number of challenges to face, and it doesn't look like the millennials are going to help us grow our way out of the systemic problems," Madeline J. Goodman, a co-author of the report, told Education Week. "What it requires us to do is in some sense rethink the nature of the problem and not look at [educational] attainment as the only solution to the problem."
This isn't an entirely unfamiliar; prior studies have reported similar results. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, only 26% of 12th graders were proficient in math, and just 38% were proficient in reading.
But the ETA's data adds another dismal layer to the batch. Even when young people do obtain proper education, they can't seem to make it work for them. Though they may be learning the basics in school, millennials can't seem to contextualize these skills and apply them once they enter the workforce.
In other words, when even the most privileged workers are having trouble, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the pack.
It's threatening our position as a global powerhouse. "To put it bluntly, we no longer share the growth and prosperity of the nation the way we did in the decades between 1940 and 1980," the study said.
The danger in having a comparatively weak millennial workforce — besides adding to the generation's alleged self-pitying tendencies — is that it threatens the country's competitive edge when it comes to economic and social gains.
The large gap between our highest and lowest performing workers is a particular cause for concern, and mirrors other warnings about inequality; namely, that it will bring nothing but bad things for society.
"If we continue on this path, there could be serious consequences for America's economy and the future prosperity of our workforce," the authors warned.
As for solutions to these expansive and thorny problems? The study suggested that it may be pertinent to begin thinking of education and its importance outside of the classroom, as opposed to inside.
"If we expect to have a better-educated population and a more competitive workforce, policymakers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills and examines these more critically," it concluded.
It's not enough to memorize the formulas and poignant passages, or even to walk across the stage on graduation day, diploma in hand — it's the job of young people to put these hard-won lessons to work. If we don't, the country's precarious position may come tumbling down before we know it.