Millennials reconsidering finances and future under COVID-19

A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.

Millennials reconsidering finances and future under COVID-19
  • Millennials have been labeled the "unluckiest generation in U.S. history" after the one-two financial punch of the Great Recession and the pandemic shutdowns.
  • A recent survey found that about a third of millennials felt financially unprepared for the pandemic and have begun saving.
  • To achieve financial freedom, millennials will need to take control of their finances and reinterpret their relationship with the economy.

    • It can be tempting to look at the economic history of the last two decades and derive a certain lesson. That lesson being: The millennial generation is screwed. The Washington Post even tagged millennials as the "unluckiest generation in history."

      It's understandable why the punditocracy would think this. Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials exited school and entered work right into the Great Recession. The recession forced many millennials to postpone financial milestones such as marriage, buying a home, retirement savings, or even reliable employment. That global setback quietly became a generational one. While the baby boomers and GenXers recovered their lost wealth relatively quickly, millennials couldn't and became the first generation with a standard of living lower than their parents'.

      A decade later, millennials face the pandemic shutdown. Although we can't say with certainty how the pandemic will affect us in the long-term, early forecasts suggest millennials will again take the brunt. Pew Research Center data, for example, suggest that about a third of millennial-aged homes have had someone in the household lose a job, while Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data forecast millennials suffering longer stretches of joblessness.

      "Millennials are in a fundamentally different economic place than previous generations," Reid Cramer, director of the Millennials Initiative at New America, wrote in "The Emerging Millennial Wealth Gap. "Relatively flat but volatile incomes, low savings and asset holdings, and higher consumer and student debt have weakened their finances. The Millennial balance sheet is in poor shape."

      Taking control of bad luck

      According to a recent survey by The Manifest, a business news website, millennials agree with Cramer. The study found that, of millennials surveyed, their largest expenses were housing (66 percent), educational expenses (9 percent), and health insurance (6 percent). In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, millennials are using the remaining 19 percent of their paychecks to budget and increase their savings.

      About a third of millennials said they are saving more money in response to the pandemic and creating new budgets for themselves. In fact, of all generations surveyed, millennials felt the most comfortable creating personal budgets. They were also willing to think critically and adjust budgets to match financial changes, both signs that this highly-educated generation is willing to learn and adapt.

      Millennials still have a rough road ahead, though. According to the survey, about half of millennials make less than $50,000 a year. That puts them into the upper-lower or lower-middle income class, depending on where in the country they live. That matches BLS data, which shows millennials earning less than older non-millennials. The BLS also notes that while millennials have less debt than GenXers, most of that is student loan debt rather than mortgages.

      And despite their budgetary plans, only 11 percent of millennials surveyed were able to stay within budget, while uncertainty still looms in the future job market.

      With all this said, there are caveats to The Manifest survey. It hosted a relatively small sample size, only surveying 502 Americans. Of those, millennials made up 22 percent of respondents. They weren't even the largest cohort in the study. That was the baby boomers at 32 percent.

      This makes the survey more suggestive than indicative. But the suggestion is that millennials, to borrow a phrase from writer Vicki Robin, are ready to reinterpret their relationship with finances.

      A push for financial freedom

      While budgeting and financial savvy have always been important, the millennial generation will need to be far more critical of their relationship with the economy. What Robin calls the old roadmap—the idea that "growth is good, more is better, game over"—is unlikely to support millennials as it did past generations. They'll need a new roadmap, charting both a new macro (the relationship between our economic and ecological footprints, for example) and micro (our individual relationships with money).

      Because the macro is a whole other article, we'll stick with the micro here:

      1) Track and cut your spending

      The first step to financial freedom is to track your spending and cut unnecessary purchases. For Robin, these are often the things, services, and subscriptions that we buy out of habit, but we no longer consider whether they add value to our lives.

      A pernicious modern example is the subscription economy. We subscribe to services for food, clothes, television, exercise, self-help, video games, bric-a-brac, computer programs, and on and on. These services quickly fade into the financial background as just another bill we pay.

      But if we watch Netflix nine times out of ten, why pay for Hulu and Disney+ and HBO Max and CBS All access? Instead, every month or so, we should scrutinize our subscriptions to ask whether they still add value to our lives. If they don't, unsubscribe.

      2) Kill your debt

      Debt doesn't just take away money we could save elsewhere; it's also a self-replicating devourer of wealth. Your debt interest rates are almost certainly higher than your investment returns, especially on credit cards. Because of this, no matter your saving rituals, you're likely bleeding wealth the longer you remain in debt.

      Instead, focus on removing debt from your life. Again, credit card debt especially. The good news is that most companies have hardship programs to help debtors. You can call them to see if they can lower your interest rates or provide other helpful services.

      "Financial accommodations are generally readily available right now," Amy Thomann, the head of consumer credit education at TransUnion, told the New York Times. "Lenders, just like consumers, understand the hardships that are going on in the economy."

      3) Have an emergency fund

      Of course, you'll need some savings when the unexpected happens. Say—I don't know—a worldwide pandemic? Experts like Robin and Thomann recommend people have three to six months' worth of expenses on reserve. These should be in liquid assets so you can access them easily and quickly.

      Of course, that's not always feasible, but you should save what you can.

      4) Find social outlets that don't cost

      The economic shutdown has offered one financial boon: It has revealed ways we can enjoy each other's company with overspending. We can host movies remotely with our friends. Play video games online. Enjoy physical-distance strolls through the park. And a host of other creative connections. After the pandemic, the occasional bar hop or Friday dinner out can still be a guilty pleasure. But unlike sitcom characters, we shouldn't be spending our social lives on the set of our favorite coffee shops or local watering holes.

      5) Reconsider your relationship with money

      Robin pushes her readers to be financially free. That is, to understand that there's an economy, people have a relationship with it, but it shouldn't become an obsession that runs their lives. As she told Big Think: "It's like there are so many presumptions that drive us into wage [slavery], and it doesn't matter whether you are at the low end or the high end. If you are engaged in that sort of anxious process of 'more, more, more,' you are not free."

      The millennial generation has certainly been dealt a bum hand, but it's perhaps defeatist, and more than a little premature, to label them the unluckiest generation. Perhaps after being led astray by the old roadmap, they will be the generation to reconsider their relationship with money—not as an end itself but a means to a healthier and more beneficial life.

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      For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

      The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

      The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

      One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

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      Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

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      A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

      We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.


      "This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

      "While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

      What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

      The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

      A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

      This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.


      If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

      Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

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