One of the central tenets that animate the American spirit is the idea that the succeeding generation will be better off than the preceding generation. In fact, the American Dream is predicated on this belief. Today’s millennial generation is coming of age in the midst of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. As millennials find themselves between the Scylla of mounting student debts and Charybdis of high unemployment, they could be the first generation in American history that ends up being worse off than the previous generation if current trends persist.
For the baby boomers who grew up in the shadow of World War II, jobs were plentiful. More importantly, they lived in a time when the government took bold actions in order to ensure that the doors of colleges and universities were open for millions of Americans who could not otherwise afford higher education. Lyndon Johnson passed the Higher Education Act of 1965 that increased federal funds to colleges and universities and provided students with low interest rate loans among others. Millions of students were able to graduate from colleges without incurring much debt because of effective public policies.
If these baby boomers grew up in the best of times, the millennials are coming of age in the worst of times. According to the Wall Street Journal, student loans are higher than credit card debt for the first time in history — student loans have reached $829,785 billion, while credit card bills are estimated at $826.5 billion. A report indicates that the average student owes more than $25,000. The current administration passed two measures: A plan, which would permit college graduates to pay only 10% of their income as they pay their student loans, and the Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 which would increase funding for more Pell Grants. Even with these two important measures, many students would continue to struggle to afford higher education and pay down their loans after they graduate.
While this generation has been saddled with the most student loan debt, they face one of the toughest job markets. The same report points out that the unemployment rate for newly college graduates was 9.1% in 2010. NPR reported in a story on the Millennials that “only 55% of people ages 16 to 29 have a job," which is the lowest level since 1945. Furthermore, about "25 percent of people between the ages 25-34" are still residing with their family.
The most heart-wrenching story that encapsulates the bleak outlook for this generation was an exposé by the Huffington Post on a number of college students who are seeking out suitors or “sugar daddies” that would help them defray their expenses in exchange for sexual favors. One of the sites which provide this type of service has more than 170,000 students and alumni that are looking for this type of arrangement. The students registered have attended schools like UCLA, NYU, Harvard, and Berkley. Moreover, this particular site is not the only that offers such service. One can only imagine the number of students or college graduates who are resorting to this kind of activity because of the precariousness of their economic situation. It also begs the question: If some of the most educated millennials must go to such lengths to provide themselves with some semblance of financial security, one can only wonder how much more distressing the situation must be for the less educated members of that group whose employment outlook looks even bleaker.
To restore the unbridled optimism that is a part and parcel of the American character among millenials will require a concerted effort on the part of policymakers and business leaders to provide the same or comparable educational and job opportunities that were available to baby boomers. If millenials fail to live up to the aspirations of their forebears, it would not be because they lack gumption, the will, or the intelligence of earlier generations. Rather, it would be because the preceding generation fails to keep their end of the bargain by bequeathing to the millennial generation a raw deal.
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