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Millennials Are Different, Just Not the Way You Think

Young adults today are more optimistic despite facing more economic strain than the previous two generations

( Miguel Juarez Lugo/ZUMA Press/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Millennials are just the worst. It’s all over the media: Millennial graduates have been scolded for being the "least knowledgable graduating class in history" and dubbed the "boomerang generation" because they won’t leave their parent’s house and financial umbrella. They have "a level of optimism that most people think is almost silly." They are impatient, self-centered and clueless. They have confusing, contradictory consumer habits that are "particularly baffling to marketers and researchers." Or maybe, they are just like their parents, only younger.

Never mind that most reporting on the most recent generation coming into adulthood focuses on sweeping generalizations and ignores diversity in race and class. And not all the generalizations are bad. But apparently, there is some truth to the idea that millennials differ from previous generations. In an NPR article, Samantha Raphelson looks past some of the stereotypes and digs into the facts for the group of young Americans born between 1980 and 2000. 

First of all, millennials make up a big chunk of the U.S. population. Immigrants have helped the young 'uns beat out baby boomers. "To put this in perspective," Raphelson writes, "the most common age in America right now is 22." And there’s more:

Unlike their parents' generation, millennials are ushering in an age when minorities will lead the U.S. population. Many of them aren't too keen on marrying early. They are the most educated generation — but even so, a majority remains undereducated. And since they entered the workforce in the midst of a sluggish economy, many also remain underemployed.

Despite those hard realities, millennials as a group are optimistic about what their future holds.

Student debt is also changing the way millennials grapple with life. "More than 40 percent of households headed by young adults with some college are dealing with student loans," writes Selena Simmons-Duffin for another article in NPR’s series on millennials. Some millennials, like Noelle Johnson (who was interviewed for the piece), have looked at that growing debt and changed their education plans to deal with it. 

"I had to say, 'Well, I can't take out any more loans and I definitely don't have the cash for it.' So I have to stop, and then save, and then pay for that semester, and then do that all over again," she says.

It all adds up to a fairly rough overall financial picture for millennials. "Over 12 percent of those ages 25-32 without a college degree are unemployed, and about 22 percent of that cohort are below the poverty line," writes Raphelson. "In contrast, 7 percent of boomers with just a high school diploma lived in poverty in 1979."

Perhaps those facts help put into perspective the declining rate of home ownership among young adults (oh, also that seems to be more the fault of Gen X-ers) and the trend of "getting handouts from mom and dad." 

So can you really fault this generation for being optimistic? Millennials are more upbeat about the nation’s future than other generations. Seems like a gutsy thing to think, considering.

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