It’s not the best time to be young, from an economic perspective. Members of the millennial generation, born between 1985 and 2000, face long-term challenges to their ability to find jobs and have long term career stability — in short, they’re downwardly mobile. This means that they might never achieve the economic prosperity of their parents, that they’re mired in student loan debt, and they’re out of work at incredible rates that might never turn around. It doesn’t sound fun, yet surveys repeatedly show that milennials are optimistic. Why is this generation, facing downward mobility and economic decline, facing the future more brightly than any other?
Millenials, with all their financial travails, have a greater impetus to define fulfillment beyond economic success, and it will make them more likely to experiment, innovate, and fight harder for social change.
In spite of their economic challenges, young people remain enthusiastic about their abilities to achieve. A lot of this is reflected in their consumer habits, and how they choose to spend their time, employed or unemployed.
Some of that change, while innovative, is kitschy. Emily Manchar’s new book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, indicates that increasingly, young people are turning to innovative and unusual artisanal and sustainable projects. She quotes one 23-year-old trying to start a jam business: “My parents keep asking when I’m going to get a real job,” she says. “Nobody my age can find a real job. We have to be creative. I have a friend with dual master’s degrees who’s been unemployed forever. Now she’s making and selling doughnuts.” In an economy where one can’t find a job anyway, those who can afford it do what they love, regardless of profit. This change is exciting, and what many pundits and demographers focus on when discussing the new optimism and changing perspectives of the millennial generation.
But the potential that young people have — not in spite of but because of economic stagnation — goes beyond success defined in the private sector. Millennials' optimism, coupled with the sheer amount of things that seem to be going wrong in the world, might radicalize a generation — not radicalize in the sense that the Occupy Wall Street movement will come screaming back to life (though the local advocacy and social-service model of Occupy has real potential), but in the sense that the millennial worldview will become the new normal. If the house, car, and fulfilling climb up the career ladder isn’t going to be effective, perhaps the millennial generation can take on systemic poverty or climate change, both issues that will not wait. As so many younger workers are unemployed or have jobs with few benefits or adequate pay, advocating for workers’ rights and fairness in the workplace will be a greater priority for those coming of age in this new economy.
The millennial generation’s optimism doesn’t come from a misconception about their economic opportunities. It comes from the realization that global economic instability is daunting, but provides an opportunity for change. Optimism is nothing without a plan, and millennials seem to realize their lifelong accomplishments might never mirror those of their parents. In a world where there’s so much to fix, maybe that’s where millennial optimism comes from.