Saving their money.
But a new survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America paints a surprisingly responsible picture of America's most maligned generation. Far from blowing it all on Taylor Swift concerts, beard wax and microbrews, most young adults are saving a significant percentage of their income.
The poll: According to Bloomberg reporting on the CFA's data, 56% of 18- to 34-year-olds are now saving at least 5% of their income, up from 50% a year ago and outmatching the national average of 52%. The growth in the number of young people adults saving 5% of their income outmatched every other age group but 45- to 54-year-olds, who grew from 45% to 53%.
Bloomberg reports that 18- to 35-year-olds are also making impressive progress on meeting their savings goals, having actual savings plans and forming emergency funds capable of covering the cost of unexpected expenses. CFA executive director Stephen Brobeck told Bloomberg that "[y]ounger people are now starting to become more hopeful, thinking that the future may be better than the present."
Making the best of a bad situation: While the improvement the CFA measured was impressive, Americans still face onerous challenges in the economy. A worrying 60% reported a failure to make "good or excellent" savings progress, according to Bloomberg. Young people in particular face other challenges.
The outlook for unemployed millennials is dim. Sean McElwee, a research analyst at the public policy organization Demos, told Mic over email that they "are saving very little, if at all." There are still clear racial gaps as well: McElwee noted that the CFA survey reveals that 29% of white millennials reported saving 10% or more of their income, while just 16% of young black adults did.
But McElwee also says that those millennials who are saving are doing so because they face unique challenges. "Unlike previous generations, most millennials won't have access to a defined-benefit plan, which means they are more subject to the vicissitudes of the market," he said.
Instead, they will be shuffled into 401(k)s that Demos estimates may charge up to $154,794 over the course of a worker's lifetime. According to McElwee, Demos also estimates that a $53,000 student debt load will reduce a typical young adult's lifetime debt by over $200,000.
"In the old days, there were three pillars of retirement: a workplace pension, private savings and Social Security," McElwee said. "The foundations of those pillars have deeply eroded. In sum, if millennials are saving more, this finding will break down on class and race lines. Further, millennials need to save more, because many of the programs and policies their parents relied on no longer exist."
Why you should care: Basically, the generation of Americans between the age of 18 and 34 has been dealt a raw deck. But rather than giving up or piddling their money away on hip consumer products, they're working hard to ensure they don't get sucked back into the economic black hole of the last half-decade. That sounds an awful lot like the kind of fiscal discipline young people are often accused of lacking.
These skills were also hard-won. A previous Wells Fargo survey in 2014 found that 80% of millennials reported that the Great Recession had taught them the importance of maintaining savings.
In reality, young people are rising to the challenge of an economy that has long since declared it doesn't care about them. Not content to just stay afloat, many are actively saving for their future.
Arguably, accusatory rhetoric labeling younger workers as incompetent is just a way of shifting blame from the older people actually in charge of the economy. For example, finance writer Terry Savage claims that it's "become a lifestyle habit to spend all you earn — and more. Just look around the fancy restaurants, the chic hotel bars, the designer clothing stores — and you will see these spots populated by the generation that was born between 1982 and 2004."
They're actually doing the opposite, despite many challenges to the contrary. Struggling young folk have to deal with enough already without constantly being accused of financial mismanagement and reckless attitudes towards work and money.