3 inconvenient truths about the millennial generation
Writer Michael Hobbes says there are too many stereotypes about millennials.
Michael Hobbes: So, there are three things that every millennial should know. The first one is that there is no evidence for any of the stereotypes about us.
If you look at entitlement, if you look at selfishness, if you look at public opinion polling there’s as much evidence that we’re “worse than our parents” as there is that we are werewolves: There is none.
Whereas there’s a mountain of evidence that things are harder for our generation than they were for our parents or our grandparents, and that it’s getting worse.
So how many articles have you read about how more millennials are living with their parents now than ever? There are twice as many millennials living on their own—making less than $30,000 a year—than there are millennials living with their parents. We don't read any articles about that.
So what we need to do is acknowledge that all of these stereotypes come from anecdotes, that they are older people who have seen a millennial on a skateboard or have had an intern who was a young person who they didn't like very much and have decided that that is representative of an entire generation, and we need to resist that.
It wasn’t always like this. When my dad bought his first house he was 29, living in Seattle; he was a university professor and his house cost 18 months of his salary.
Now, if you’re a young person living in a big city you know that that is science fiction. In the vast majority of America, especially in cities, it will cost you six, seven, ten, 12 years of the median salary to buy the median home. So this idea that we’re different from our parents because WE have changed is completely false.
What has happened is the economy has profoundly shifted underneath us. Housing, healthcare and education are all three times more expensive now than they were in 1968. Those are the prerequisites of a middle class adulthood, of a secure adulthood, a real life, and our parents like to point out that things like refrigerators and TVs are a lot cheaper—and they are, that’s great—but the things we actually need in our lives are much more expensive, and our wages have not kept up.
So, one of the things that we forget, and especially our parents forget, is how much cheaper college used to be.
When my dad was in college he worked for ten hours a week in the cafeteria, and that was enough for his tuition and a little bit of his rent. That doesn’t sound familiar to anybody I know. And what has happened since then is the cost of education has gone up between 400 and 1200 percent, depending on the kind of school you go to. Meanwhile, minimum wages haven’t really budged, general wages haven’t really budged, and the price of everything else has gotten higher too.
So in the early ‘70s it took around 300 hours of minimum wage work to afford a four year education. By the 2000s it took 4,400 hours of minimum wage work to afford a four year education.
So tell your parents that next Thanksgiving when they complain to you about not going to college.
I think there’s a tendency when we talk about millennials, and especially when we talk about poor millennials, to talk about our choices rather than our options.
So again, the evidence—like did my grandparents know what their pension was when they were 25? I don’t think they did. I think that by the time they checked they had one, whereas this generation gets blamed for not saving more for retirement. The reason why that’s considered a huge problem is because there’s no such thing as the defined benefit pension anymore.
A lot of our grandparents have a situation where they get 80 percent of their last salary for the rest of their lives. That is nonexistent for our generation.
So we are now being given the responsibility of saving up to compensate for the fact that the economy doesn’t take care of us anymore. We’re being blamed for the fact that we can’t take care of ourselves. But what have wages done since 1980? They’ve been flat. What has happened to the cost of everything? It’s gone up.
So we are being asked to reverse this, to counteract this ourselves when we have less secure work, less in savings, we’re paying more for housing and we’re paying off our student loans.
And I’m sure that there are irresponsible millennials on planet earth, I don’t think that they should be getting the bulk of the attention or the prioritization when we talk about what’s really happening with young people.
What we have is a crisis where, to get onto the job ladder—the few decent jobs left that have healthcare, that have security, that have a pension—they all require a college degree, so you have to go to college, basically.
The college premium, how much extra you earn for going to college, is 70 percent. You earn almost double if you go to college, on average, than if you don’t go to college.
So we’re in this bind where you have to go to college or else you end up in a really bad job for the rest of your life, but then to go to college you have to go into $80,000, $100,000, more than that in debt.
I interviewed somebody for the article that is paying off $311,000 in debt. I interviewed another person who is actually a bankruptcy lawyer who was paying $2000 a month in student loans after he got out of college.
And so when you look at how many of us have student loans and that we’re paying them off at the time when we’re early in our careers, we’re not as established in our fields, we can’t afford decent housing, we aren’t earning very much at that time, and then we’re also on top of that paying a couple hundred dollars a month extra—that’s money we’re not saving, that’s money we’re not putting to a pension, that’s money we’re not putting to a home—and that extends the period of what our parents call “adolescence”, but really insecurity—that extends our period of insecurity into our 30s and our 40s.
And so if you look at any poll of millennials, more than half say they have put off marriage, they have put off children, they have put off buying a home because of their student loans.
And student loans are the only form of debt that you cannot get rid of in bankruptcy, so they are literally in escapable. Even if you die, in some states your partner might actually have to pay them off for you.
So this is a ball and chain around the ankle of millions of millennials, and again, it’s not a choice that we made, it’s the economy that we’re in, that to get onto the job ladder you need to have an education. And yet that thing that you need has gotten more and more expensive and, again, we are being blamed for going to college and majoring in ancient Greek or something when we should have done STEM, but STEM degrees cost more.
I think it’s important to know that everything that’s been done to us has been done to us in broad daylight, which means that we can roll it back. That’s the only good news I’m going to give you.
Everything about our wages and our housing costs and financialization and the safety net, these are specific laws that have been passed. Other countries have not done this. So we can actually look into fixing all of these things.
I think as a generation we are finally aging into power, and when we take power we need to not make the same mistakes that our parents’ generation did.
We need to create an equitable country where even the bottom is pretty well off, where we don’t have this “personal responsibility” narrative, where “if you’re poor it’s your fault, and if your schools were bad it’s because you’re dumb”.
We need to end all of that.
We need to be a moral society that has a basic floor underneath every person, a level of dignity beneath which we don’t allow people to fall. That’s not too much to ask. That’s what many other countries have done as they’ve become more prosperous.
We’re the only ones that has not had that project and has deliberately rolled ours back.
So it’s really important as we age into power to not think that we need to start everything from scratch.
You hear a lot now about fancy new policy ideas, and we have a lot of systems in place. Food stamps are not broken; the eligibility for food stamps is cruel and you cannot spend food stamps on a sandwich. That is bullshit. We need to fix that.
We don’t need to start with a whole new structure that is going to be an excuse for people to cut overall spending.
Other countries have just gone through this recently where they’ve said, “Oh we just want to make it easier to get welfare,” and they use it as an excuse to give away less.
What we need to do is we need to tax the rich and we need to spend it on public services.
We oftentimes gets distracted by shiny objects I think, especially on the left, but things like public education—let’s pay teachers more, let’s have smaller class sizes, let’s give principles control over their own schools, let’s tax the rich to pay for it. That’s fine.
Homelessness: let’s build houses for people. Let’s keep people from getting evicted from their homes. Let’s allow cities to build homes when people move there. Let’s tax the rich to pay for it. There’s lots of things that we can do that we already have, but we’ve systematically defunded them.
You hear a lot of things about Hyperloop now and autonomous cars. There’s also this thing called “trains and buses” that we have not funded adequately for 30 to 40 years now. Let’s fund lots of trains and lots of buses and tax the rich to pay for it.
It’s not that there’s not enough money, it never was; that’s absurd. There is enough money, but it’s being distributed to places where it doesn’t need to be going, and we need to start to roll that back and that has to be our, unfortunately, generational project, is reversing everything that our parents had done to us.
It’s really not that hard. I think there’s this sense that we’re going to come up with some magical policy idea that’s going to make this easy. It’s not going to be easy. We don’t necessarily have to come up with some fancy new idea that’s going to build a consensus, we just have to win.
We are on the cusp of outnumbering older generations, we need to take our political power and use it to create an equitable country, the kind that we wish we grew up in.
Writer Michael Hobbes says there are too many stereotypes about millennials. What is missing is the realization that millennials are going to be in financial trouble. The conditions that allowed previous American generations economic prosperity are simply not there. Since millennials are bound to start taking power, they need to avoid the mistakes of their parents.
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