Millennials set back by bad times, but persevere

Last Updated: Sep. 5, 2014

September 28, 2013 | By Dave Helling

Katie Gillespie, age 29, is smiling.

She has a full-time job she loves. A nice place to live. Friends and family. A future.

Yet her path to adulthood, like that of virtually everyone she knows, has been uneven — more pothole than pavement.

The Great Recession got in the way.

“Getting to this place,” she said, “was different than what I thought.”

Gillespie’s friends, gathered around a lunch table, nod in understanding.

Their relationships, their work, their lives unfolded in ways they might scarcely have imagined as they stepped onto the adulthood limb a decade ago.

For Gillespie and her peers — indeed, for an estimated 60 million “millennials” generally born between 1980 and 1995 — the 2008 economic collapse brought an often-volcanic disruption to life patterns their parents saw as immutable reality.

Careers have been delayed. Indeed, jobs of any kind have been tough to find, potentially costing millennials hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost lifetime earnings.

The last five years rearranged their American dream.

Postponed and canceled home purchases will likely make it harder for millennials to build wealth, while significant retirement saving is out of reach. Unprecedented student debt hangs over recent graduates. Credit scores have dropped, and loans are harder to get.

“You want to be independent more than anything, but it’s nearly impossible,” said Bree Williams, a 25-year-old retail worker who teaches yoga part-time in a studio on Kansas City’s East Side. “I don’t known anyone my age who finances their life independently.”

And now millennials are expected to buy health coverage they may not need, at high premiums, in order to keep insurance costs low for sicker baby boomers. Someday, millennials may be asked to pay higher Social Security taxes, even though their own retirements will almost certainly be delayed.

It’s no surprise that some now call 20-somethings a lost generation, almost unique in the nation’s history.

Most are anxious. Some are frustrated.

“Younger millennials are contemplating how exactly they’re going to make livings and find their way in the world, while our leaders argue,” University of Kansas graduate Alex Rausch recently wrote online.

But here’s the most amazing fact of all: For all of those challenges, millennials seem supremely optimistic about their futures, more upbeat than baby boomers.

“We were the first generation raised to believe we were unique and beautiful snowflakes. The approach was, ‘We can be whatever we want to be. Justice will prevail,’” one millennial told The Star.

The Pew Research Center, in a major study of millennials, recently concluded: “Whatever toll a recession, a housing crisis, a financial meltdown and a pair of wars may have taken on the national psyche in the past few years, it appears to have hit the old harder than the young. … Millennials (are) confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change.”

Careers, they now know, will change. Friends will move in, move out, move on. Whatever.

“Millennials are not afraid to create their own jobs,” said Jeff Fromm, a Kansas City-based advertiser and author of a book on the generation.

“Or their own world.”

If he’s right, millennials will outrace the Great Recession largely because they’ll define their lives in ways their parents and grandparents may not recognize.

On the job, back to school

The 2008 economic collapse rocketed through the job market, forcing millions out of work. At its height in October 2009, the national unemployment rate hit 10 percent.

Yet millennials, particularly those who entered the workforce as the recession hit its peak, suffered more than any other age group. In 2010, 37 percent of 18- to-29-year-olds were unemployed, the highest rate in three decades.

Baby boomers faced employment challenges, too. But many simply dropped from the workforce, living off admittedly thinner nest eggs that millennials didn’t have.

The picture has improved since the depths of the Great Recession, even for millennials. Some jobs have opened, and career paths have been restored.

But the problems of out-of-work millennials may echo through the national economy for years. When quality entry-level jobs are scarce, it takes longer for inexperienced workers to land the training and advancement their parents took for granted.

“Young people who graduate from college in a bad economy typically suffer long-term consequences,” concluded Pew, “with effects on their careers and earnings that linger as long as 15 years.”

Some economists, though not all, say the problem is made worse by boomers who didn’t leave the workforce, clogging the pipeline for entry-level positions and advancement.

Such trends suppress potential earnings growth, perhaps for decades.

“Anything that’s extreme and lasts for a while at that age is permanent, one way or another,” said nationally known demographer and author Neil Howe.

Problems were particularly pronounced for millennials in their mid-20s who tried to enter the workforce in the teeth of the recession. For some, the answer was a return to college.

“I have a lot of friends coming out of school right behind me who said, ‘I hear the job market’s bad, so I’m going to stay for my master’s,’” said Jessica Best, 31, of Kansas City.

While those decisions give millennials additional skills, though, they leave many with astonishing levels of educational debt.

Since 2004, total student debt tripled to more than $1.2 trillion — now second only to mortgage debt on the nation’s balance sheet.

And repaying that debt from lower salaries has proved difficult. The delinquency rate on student debt, a recent Fed study suggested, is close to 30 percent. The average student loan debt is more than $26,000.

Not every millennial facing job struggles decided to go back to school.

Some entered the workforce by taking the few jobs that were available — often low-paid, low-benefit, part-time. Some took unpaid internships.

While that helped the balance sheet, it left many millennials frustrated at a world that had changed in ways they didn’t expect.

“I was very confused,” Gillespie said. “I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why is this happening to me? I went to school and got my degree, now where’s my job?’”

Eventually, Gillespie found a good job in health care. That also reflects a common millennial approach — unlike their parents, 20-somethings comfortably move from job to job, employer to employer.

One study suggests millennials will change employers an average of seven times before age 30.

Stephon Jones, 22, took several lower-wage gigs over the past several years, waiting for a break. He got one this summer when Ford offered him a job.

“There were a couple of times I was going to give up, for sure,” he said. “I got tired of bouncing around. But you can’t. You’ve got to keep on trying.”

Repeated job turnover is a challenge for white-collar and professional workers, who must continue to learn new skills as the job market evolves.

But it can be even more difficult for blue-collar workers in a new technology and information economy.

“These are people bouncing from one temporary job to the next; dropping out of college because they can’t figure out financial aid forms or fulfill their major requirements; relying on credit cards for medical emergencies,” Harvard research fellow Jennifer Silva wrote in The New York Times in June.

The Great Recession also depressed millennial income. From 2000 to 2011, the Economic Policy Institute found, wages actually fell for entry-level workers.

Adulthood interrupted

Housing prices collapsed in the Great Recession — but so did access to credit, a particular challenge for millennials with smaller incomes and sketchier credit histories.

“When my dad was my age, he could go out and get a loan to start his own business,” Williams said. “I have friends that want to do the same thing … and no bank will finance it.”

That phenomenon will affect the economy for decades. When 20-somethings can’t borrow for businesses or homes, 40-somethings can’t move up. Then boomers depending on home equity for retirement can’t sell, and the entire housing market freezes.

As a result, millennials have changed their outlook on buying homes. They have little interest in their parents’ McMansions.

“Unlike their baby boomer parents, 77 percent of millennials surveyed would prefer an ‘essential’ home compared to a grand stereotypical luxury home,” Better Homes and Gardens said this spring.

Some millennials say the Great Recession has soured them on home-buying completely. Better to rent, so that moving to a new job or city is easy.

“I haven’t seen anybody who says, ‘I have to own a house,’” Best said. “I know someone who owned a home and sold it just to have the liquidity, just to be able to go to Spain or whatever.”

But by far the biggest impact of the Great Recession has been felt in childhood bedrooms re-opened for millennials.

Last year, 36 percent of people ages 18 to 31 were living in their parents’ home. That’s the highest percentage since the early 1960s.

Some millennials are moving home because of poor job prospects, or enrollment in college. But the biggest reason, by far, is they’re putting off marriage. And they’re living with Mom and Dad until they tie the knot.

Waiting for weddings

Last year, three out of four Americans between 18 and 28 were unmarried (and roughly half of them lived at home). Boomers in their 20s married at twice that rate.

Those rules have been changing for some time. But the Great Recession, with its impact on jobs, student loans and income, greatly accelerated the phenomenon.

“There aren’t any rules anymore about when you have to get married or when you start having kids,” Best said.

Despite the personal challenges of the Great Recession, though, most millennials maintain a faith in government as an important part of their lives. They liked the ability to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans well into their 20s, for example, because of the Affordable Care Act.

But that faith will be tested as their careers grow. Starting in January, healthy millennials will be required to carry health insurance, even though they may not need it. Their premiums are necessary to cut costs for older, sicker Americans.

Medicare and Social Security remain expensive entitlement programs paid for, in large part, by working Americans, including millennials. Yet few younger workers have confidence that old-age programs will be there for them.

The unmistakable trend of all the changing millennial choices will impact policy decisions for everyone.

Fewer cars, homes and children mean fewer highways and schools — and more mass transit, and coffee shops. Changing jobs frequently will make portable health insurance more important.

Walking on sunshine

For all of this, millennials remain unbowed by the distorting effects of the Great Recession.

“I’m doing a job I never in a million years thought I would do or I was suited for,” Gillespie said. “It turns out I’m suited perfectly for it. And I enjoy it.”

Experts say that adaptability is common among millennials, and crucial.

Williams, the retail worker and yoga instructor, believes things will get better soon.

“I still have time,” she said. “Yoga has taught me that I can do something I enjoy and make money from it.”

Best said the Great Recession has taught her important lessons about priorities — some things matter, like family and friends. Possessions? Less significant.

And ultimately, that may be the biggest impact of the Great Recession — for all its challenges, the kids are all right.

“I feel like ‘recession’ is code for, we had to start actually spending (only) the money we have,” Best said. “In what world is four TVs middle class?

“We’re all rich beyond our wildest dreams.”