Annabel Adams has seen a lot in her life: 9-11, the dot-com bust, the housing collapse, the financial crisis, the Great Recession. That may sound like a lifetime of experience, but she is just 28 years old. If your birth year is essentially a genetic lottery, which drops you into the economic circumstances of the day, then it's no exaggeration to say that the 70 million millennials, or Generation Y, those born in the 1980s and '90s, appear to have lost that lottery.
"We grew up believing that we would have all the things our parents had: With a college education we'd get a dream job, health insurance, a 401(k), a home," said Adams, a Long Beach, California, resident and public relations manager for a healthy-eating firm. "Now nothing is sure anymore." As a result, Adams has shelved a lot of those expectations. She lives at home with her mom, does not have a 401(k), and is coping with $20,000 in student loans. While she enjoys carving out a niche as a health writer, the prospect of becoming a homeowner seems distant.
Much has been made of the millennials as an entitled generation, constantly whining about the obligations of adulthood while fiddling with their iPhones. But life has been tough for many of them. Student debt has now surpassed $1 trillion, with the average college grad who took out loans saddled with more than $25,000 in debt. Americans aged 20 to 24 now face 13.2 percent unemployment, up from 7.7 percent five years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Back in 1984, households headed by Americans 65 and older used to have ten times the wealth of those 35 and under; by 2009, according to Pew Research, that spread had multiplied to 47 times. "We've now had five years of a very difficult economy, and young adults have been hit hardest of all," said Paul Taylor, executive VP of the Pew Research Center, which did a comprehensive study of the troubles Gen Y is facing. "It's having a major ripple effect in how they're living their lives. All the classic milestones of adulthood – getting married, having kids, settling down and buying a home – are happening much later."
Still, the millennials are not the first generation to come of age in hard times. For example, the recession of the early 1980s was deep and powerful as well. In 1980 inflation rose to 13.5 percent, and by 1982, the interest rate on 30-year mortgages was 15.5 and the housing market had stalled. Yet the baby boomers who were 20-somethings then seem to have found their financial footing. While millennials surely have some tough sledding ahead of them, the difficulties are not insurmountable, and could even work to their advantage.
"I hold a contrarian view on Gen Y-ers and how the recession is affecting their career prospects," said Amy Hirsh Robinson, who advises Fortune 500 corporations on generational issues as a principal with Interchange Group in Los Angeles. "There are stronger social and generational forces at play than the recession, and the fact that large companies are trying to recruit top talent from this generation proves my point."