Once every few weeks, my uncle, the retired navy captain, posts something on his Facebook wall about the failings of millennials. We’re entitled. We’re lazy. We’ve made bad choices. Our growth, on the whole, is stunted. His arguments aren’t lost on me. By the time my mother was my age, she had a husband, five kids, a mortgage, and was on her way to completing a hard-earned bachelor’s degree. I rent a glorified double wide on a farm, and struggle to make dinner before ten most nights.
Still, I find the conversation around the failings of millennials frustrating and incomplete. While so many think pieces aim to find the reason millennials are entitled, lazy, and stunted, few offer discourse about what it means to actually, you know, be a millennial right now. And more importantly, what the future looks like for us.
According to recent research from the Pew Research Center:
Millennials are… the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles.
Their difficult economic circumstances in part reflect the impact of the Great Recession (2007-2009) and in part the longer-term effects of globalization and rapid technological change on the American workforce. Median household income in the U.S. today remains below its 1999 peak, the longest stretch of stagnation in the modern era, and during that time income and wealth gaps have widened.
Tell me what you want, what you really really want
The thing is, Michael and I actually have it pretty damn good. We were both able to go to college, thanks to scholarships and student loans. And despite graduating into the recession, we both have well-paying jobs with benefits that afford us the ability to live near a big city (thanks in no small part to Michael’s recession-proof engineering degree and the fact that he graduated two years before me, and before the worst of the recession hit). Essentially, we’re among the lucky ones. Thanks to a combination of factors, the risks we took going to college are paying off for us. Which isn’t the case for everyone, particularly black and Hispanic students who were hit even harder by the recession. Still, I graduated with nearly six figures of student loan debt, the impact of which is best illustrated in this statistic from Pew:
An analysis of the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances finds that households headed by a young, college-educated adult without any student debt obligations have about seven times the typical net worth ($64,700) of households headed by a young, college-educated adult with student debt ($8,700).
When I hear that, it suddenly makes sense why it feels like we’ve spent the past decade just trying to get ourselves to square one. Why a down payment still feels like… fantasy. And yet despite these numbers, so much of the discourse around millennials is still centered on what we “want,” like we have so much choice available to us. According to TIME:
So millennials really want a home, but they still want a cool home, right? One that’s urban, and different, and close to a Blue Bottle Coffee? Maybe when they’re still young and single, but a large amount of evidence suggests that even today’s young adults look to the suburbs once children come along. Highly dense “core cities” like San Francisco and New York are attractive to millennials looking for fun and adventure, but they’re also extremely expensive to live in when dependents enter the picture…
…Mollie Carmichael, principal at John Burns Real Estate Consulting, is already seeing millennials flee cities to more child-friendly environments. “We do find that the millennials want to be in urban areas, but usually when they’re not married and they’re renting,” says Carmichael. “But the trigger is marriage, and then frankly they want more traditional areas and more traditional environments than even their parents. They want suburban; they want single-family detached; they want a yard.”
It’s this kind of discourse about millennials that frustrates me the most. Because when I look around at the housing market in the overpriced Bay Area, where $300,000 homes are either falling down fixer-uppers or otherwise reserved exclusively for low-income senior citizens, it feels a little like we’re talking about Monopoly money. How does a person save up for a half a million dollar mortgage, exactly? It’s painfully clear to me that, if the time ever comes to buy a house, want is going to be a very small part of the equation.
Fool me twice, shame on me
Often the solutions to millennial problems are presented like it’s crazy we didn’t think of them first. I should just move to Texas and drill for oil like my cousins! Duh. Or there’s always that latte habit to cut back on. But more often than not, I find myself thinking that maybe the answer is simply that I need to drastically reassess my expectations for adulthood. For example, if we want kids in the near future, we’re going to have to grapple with the fact that it won’t be in our own home.
And maybe that’s not so bad? We like our rental, and we have plenty of space. Plus we’ve never not been scraping by on the outskirts of the richest parts of the country (New York, followed by Fairfield County, Connecticut, followed by the Bay Area), so home ownership, like the lottery, has always seemed an elusive goal at best. Still, it’s frustrating to think it wasn’t always this way.
My questions for the future are more concerned with the big picture. I was one of those kids who took out huge student loans on the promise that a college degree from a prestigious university would be well worth the debt (and in many ways it has been). Since I graduated, measures have been (and are being) taken to ensure that future generations don’t end up like mine, up to our ears in debt before even entering the workforce, signing huge guarantees without any idea of what repayment looks like. But as for myself and my peers? The country cut its teeth on our mistakes. They learned well enough to do better next time, but not soon enough to fix what had already been done. And I’m worried that the same thing is going to happen to the housing market. Right now, all my better instincts are telling me, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Maybe that’s why living off the grid always seems so romantic, at least in theory (probably not in practice. I need my space). Because at least then I’d be giving something up on my own terms.
So let’s talk. Is it time to abandon the American dream and re-envision it as something new? Or Do Millennials just need to practice some damn patience?