The Atlantic published a series of graphs earlier this week showing poverty by age group in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the analysis showed that 25- to 34-year-olds represent the demographic with the greatest percentage of individuals experiencing at least one year of earning 150% or less of the federal poverty level, or about $17,500 a year.
Notably, the article points out that this is a trend over the past 40 years, not just unique to today’s twenty-something’s, but that point has a fatal flaw: it is actually, truly, worse now.
Part of the article’s findings can be explained by young people’s lack of work experience, low pay for entry-level jobs, and high post-grad unemployment. The author rightly points out these are not conditions unique to millennials. That said, the story makes zero effort to capture the widespread and amplified impact of unemployment, low pay, and high debt on our generation.
Pundits in the millennial-bashing beat are having heart palpitations over millennials complaining about student loans and in the next breath talking about their new iPhones.
Our tight budgets aren’t slowing us down much when it comes to technology, apparel, or food, they say. We have an obsession with technology, they say, citing Pew studies that 83% of us sleep with our cell phones and 88% of us send texts regularly as though somehow this equates with not being financially stable: We’re just wasting our income on candy and iPhones, and that’s why we’re in such dire straits.
There are even those who dismiss the costs of housing and education by emphasizing our increased access to credit: that such dreams are more affordable to millennials than prior generations. But credit isn’t affluence. Technology is not affluence.
Societal progress should not be confused for individual progress. Millennials aren’t buying, aren’t investing, aren’t saving and don’t own nearly enough in this economy, and that’s bad for all Americans.
A lot of us know someone who has been unemployed or had to move back in with their parents. I went through this myself when I worked an unsuccessful political campaign right out of college, had no job to transition to in the state I was in, and moved back to live with my parents until I found a new position.
When I was accepted to grad school during that period, I moved across the country with a little bit of work experience, though not enough to earn a decent salary during school for about a year. During this time, I certainly had at least a year 150% beneath the federal poverty line, a few months of unemployment, and a period of time back under my parents’ roof.
Turns out, I'm not alone. And here's the thing: the circle of friends I have to survey is mostly comprised of college grads who grew up with me in an affluent neighborhood. Yet almost without exception, they have faced some measure of poverty, unemployment, or have had to move back home with their families. Some still live with their parents. Some even have the nerve to feel like they are underemployed for their skill-sets and their college degree paid for with the loans they took out.
We face a structural challenge that is more than just "young people have less work experience and can command less salary and less credit." It's that to have access to both, we have to go into debt or spend more, which is taking up greater portions of our income. The skyrocketing costs of housing, of education, of health care relative to what earlier generations experienced is stark, and outpacing today's wages.
We have a massive, intransigent, and pervasive problem with wealth accumulation in the largest generation to reach adulthood since the Boomers. We need to stop talking about millennials as rich, entitled kids whining about having to work hard and start talking about the totality of the millennial generation, the majority of us, who through a lethal combination of a poor economy and rising costs of living are barely staying afloat. We also need to stop dismissing these concerns because they are not entirely new concerns.
The classic grandfather’s tale of walking uphill to school both ways in the snow is irrelevant here. The cost of college tuition has increased 1120 percent over the past 30 years, which is four times faster than the consumer price index. Every time I hear a Boomer tell me what they paid for college and dismiss the rising cost of education as inflation, I show them this graph from Bloomberg:
Pay freezes, pay reductions, and unemployment — hallmarks of today’s economy for all age groups — are impacting our generation the worst. Millennials are becoming poorer, even as they work. The argument of "generational fairness," (the concept that all people have experienced challenges in paying for basic goods at a young age), are a distraction from the real conversation.
My informal survey did actually reveal a few trends to me. Notably, the friends of mine who have been unemployed or moved back in with their parents are dealing with either health or student loan issues, almost without exception. And some were too broke initially to go to college, and are now facing an acute lack of access to capital or credit to sustain themselves on low wages.
These problems are amplified for today's millennials. Sure, some of us will come out on the other side, and some of us may only experience poverty, or unemployment, or lack of affordable housing, but our detractors are mistaking the growth in use of technology and college degrees for affluence when half of all Americans can't generate $2000 in 30 days.
We have fundamentally misinterpreted millennials’ use of technology, the desire to fit in, the wealth that a college degree somehow still suggests. It is all an illusion. Young people can't make enough money fast enough, and what money we do make doesn’t last long or go far.
Progress is relative and absolutely nothing has changed except for how much worse it is.