The Downwardly Mobile Generation

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It’s a fun little game, pitting the generations against each other. Isn’t it charming how each generation complains about the last? Won’t they ever get along?!

The millennial generation is portrayed as the worst of the bunch, killing everything you hold dear: marriage, family, career, home, community. They’re entitled and flighty, they just can’t settle down or decide what to do. They’ve broken the economy with their scattered interests and varied spending. They have the least job prospects despite the highest level of education of any generation.

You must forgive me for reading with glee Michael Hobbes’s detailed breakdown at HuffPost Highline of the most screwed generation, reaching adulthood in a perfect storm of economic inopportunity. He details how job insecurity, student debt, health care, racist zoning and the housing market have compounded over decades to create a life few millennials can afford. (For an even more in-depth account of millennials and human capital, read Malcolm Harris’s new book Kids These Days) If you want to call this passing the buck, then by all means. But for a generation that has internalized high productivity and blistering output with the nagging feeling that we are barely worthy of a job, it’s at least a reminder that it’s not all in our heads.

Those unlucky millennials who graduated at the wrong time have cascaded downward through the economy. Some estimates show that 48 percent of workers with bachelor’s degrees are employed in jobs for which they’re overqualified. A university diploma has practically become a prerequisite for even the lowest-paying positions, just another piece of paper to flash in front of the hiring manager at Quiznos.

But the real victims of this credential inflation are the two-thirds of millennials who didn’t go to college. Since 2010, the economy has added 11.6 million jobs—and 11.5 million of them have gone to workers with at least some college education. In 2016, young workers with a high school diploma had roughly triple the unemployment rate and three and a half times the poverty rate of college grads.

Once you start tracing these trends backward, the recession starts to look less like a temporary setback and more like a culmination. Over the last 40 years, as politicians and parents and perky magazine listicles have been telling us to study hard and build our personal brands, the entire economy has transformed beneath us.

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