A Further Perspective

Diapers for 26-Year-Olds

So long as Millennials fail to grow up, their economic plight is unlikely to improve.

By 10.11.11

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Ask anyone above the age of 50 whether "young worker" has become an oxymoron, and they'll say yes. Now, there is hard data to back up the assertion.

In the teeth of the Great Recession, recent college graduates -- those in the Millennial generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s -- are floundering in a hellish job market. Recent Census figures show that the employment rate among young adults is 55.3 percent, the lowest rate since the end of World War II. One-in-five young adults live in poverty. Teen unemployment stands at 25 percent.

The Associated Press dubs it "the lost generation." But is it really? And if so, who's to blame? Putting aside the media's victim meme, there are many reasons for my generation's predicament (I'm 25), plenty of them a direct result of our own choices.

It's a given that macroeconomic forces beyond the power of an individual are curtailing Millennials' opportunities for financial stability. The job market is flooded with older, more experienced workers jockeying for the same entry-level positions that college graduates desire. The cost of basic needs -- groceries, housing, clothing, and gas -- has spiked. Wages are stagnant. Due to the federal government's spendthrift ways, my generation faces a debt-saturated future.

But young people also are lagging because of self-inflicted wounds: Massive student-loan debt, high consumer credit card balances, frequent changing of jobs because of boredom, poor work ethic, entitlement attitudes, heightened standard-of-living expectations, preoccupation with self-esteem, and delay of marriage and parenthood.

Consider: In 2009, the average four-year college graduate owed $24,000 in student-loan debt. That's sustainable if a student leaves school with a degree in a high-demand field -- say, nursing or engineering -- paying a decent salary right out of the gate. But for liberal arts majors who often spend the first year (if not more) of post-college life waiting tables, it's financial hara-kiri.

It doesn't stop at student loans, though. Graduates leave school, on average, with thousands in credit card debt. Throw in an auto loan, and the debt-to-income ratio goes off the charts. It's tough to get ahead in that financial scenario.

Do we care? Not really. In fact, the debt burden gives Millennials a self-esteem boost. "Researchers found that the more credit card and college loan debt held by young adults aged 18 to 27, the higher their self-esteem and the more they felt like they were in control of their lives," according to a study published by Ohio State University.

Faced with no job prospects, 20-somethings often go to graduate school, amassing even more student-loan debt. Those who do secure a job are more likely to switch because they're bored or hope to find the mythical perfect job.

"They have high, unrealistic expectations," Lee Jenkins, a manager partner of Atlanta Capital Group, told USA Today. "And many of them don't manage money very well."

In many cases, there is the expectation of a fat salary in exchange for phoned-in job performance -- and we're not afraid to admit it. A Pew Research Center study found that Baby Boomers' favorite identifying mark was their work ethic, while only 5 percent of my generation reported the same. In contrast, 24 percent of Millennials chose "technology use," 11 percent "music/pop" culture," and 7 percent "liberal/tolerant" as their mark of distinction.

I can think of many things I'd like to be remembered for. "Technology use" isn't one of them.

A New York Times story from 2009 showed that many college graduates are turning down positions that don't meet a set of unrealistic expectations. One Syracuse University graduate rejected a $50,000-a-year job at a consulting firm "because he hadn't connected well with his potential bosses." Connection is for your spouse or cell phone, not your supervisor in a more-than-decent-paying job.

In a comprehensive review of Millennials' jobs plight, the Atlantic concluded that my generation has high income expectations mixed with low work expectations: 

Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has carefully compared the attitudes of today's young adults to those of previous generations when they were the same age. Using national survey data, she's found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work's sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important.

The 20s are a great time to "cast about" in search of a life calling, but the exploration needs to end at some point. In contemporary culture, that decade has become a second adolescence, a notion reinforced by Obamacare's extension of parents' health-insurance benefits to 26-year-olds. Adults find a job and stick with it, even on bad days when it doesn't help them self-actualize.

Prior to the Sexual Revolution, young men and women had excellent reasons to keep a job and work hard: family responsibilities. In the 1940s, men on average married at age 24 and women at 22. Now, it stands at age 28 for men and 26 for women. Increasingly, those who do get married delay childbearing.

Once seen as a benchmark that signified passage to adulthood, marriage meant leaving parents and assuming responsibility for another human being. It was, and still is, a stabilizing influence on society. But with Millennials' delay of marriage has come a delay of adulthood. If no job is waiting after they graduate college, or if it's a job they don't like, Millennials can always move back in with mom and dad.

"It's a safety net -- or safety diaper -- that allows kids to quickly opt out of a job they don't like," said reporter Morley Safer on 60 Minutes.

Columnist Ruben Navarrette, writing on CNN.com, neatly summarized the tendency: "Many millennials have been known to hold out for the perfect job at the perfect company with the perfect salary and a clear path to the vice presidency, even if that means crashing with mom and dad well into their 20s."

So much for the independent American work ethic. More times than not, it isn't until we've amassed burdensome debt or frittered away our 20s playing video games and buying $5 lattes that we understand that real life doesn't work that way.

It's time we stopped blaming external forces for our economic woes. Every generation has faced its version of a "raw deal" -- whether it was the Great Depression and World War II for the Greatest Generation, or the Vietnam War and stagflation for the Boomers.

What matters is whether we shrug off the victim mentality and get our hands dirty making a better life for our loved ones and ourselves.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.