It has become a common refrain in the mainstream media: The economic problems that young people face are the product of generational laziness and a sense of entitlement. People between the ages of 16 and 24 have an unemployment rate of 16.3 percent, more than twice the national average, and an alarming 36 percent of adults age 18-31 are living with their parents.
“Word that six million young people are not working or studying comes as no surprise to anyone with a millennial in the basement,” writes Jennifer Graham in an op-ed titled “A Generation of Idle Trophy Kids,” for the Boston Globe. Millennials’ describes, loosely, the generation born between 1980 and 2000. “It’s young people who don’t leave the house at all, not because they’re scared like agoraphobics, but because their needs are met and they’re content.”
To say that Graham’s article is a woeful oversimplification would be to give it way too much credit. The article is an embarrassing debacle, filled with worthless platitudes to support an argument that is insulting not only to young and poor people but to anyone who values critical-thinking skills. Graham fails to provide any serious examination of the economic conditions facing young people, and the article lacks any significant data to back up her claim that millennials are a “minimally employable crop” of slackers who lack “the motivation to provide for themselves.”
She also seems to make the racist and classist assumption that all young people are white, privileged members of the middle class who have the luxury of returning to suburban homes (as opposed to, say, park benches or homeless shelters) when they lack steady employment. Conveniently, she ignores things like the fact that 57 percent of young black adults are either “near” or in “deep poverty.”
It is tempting to ignore such a weak and unsubstantiated argument, but this will not do, given that the Globe‘s article is rather consistent with a widespread, systemic media bias against not only young people but poor and working-class people in general. The implication is unambiguous: Poor people, of all ages, are that way because they are lazy, entitled or amoral – never mind the actual economic conditions they face.
In fact, as if they were intentionally attempting to demonstrate the narrow parameters of debate that exist in mainstream media circles, even an article by a Globe editorial board member (who is a millennial) that aims to refute Graham’s op-ed, manages to repeat some of its most galling weaknesses, including a notable lack of evidence to back up its claims. The rebuttal, like the original op-ed, turns what should be a serious issue – poverty among young adults – and reduces it to a few witty jokes (“we’ll take responsibility for Miley Cyrus”) and hipster phrases (the article concludes as such: “(drops mic) I’m out”). The article also falls into the familiar trap of assuming that all young people are privileged whites whose main priority is not finding food and shelter but having “the nice things we grew up with.” This presumes of course, that all young people grew up with “suburban homes,” computers, digital cable and other elements of the four-car-garage lifestyle the author describes. It might interest the Globe editorial board to know that most young people in today’s world did not grow up in such decadence, and many barely scraped by and have no family support. This collection of Globe articles is basically a back-and-forth between white people discussing decidedly first-world problems.
The Globe‘s worthless offerings on the subject notwithstanding, there can be no doubt that the issue of the economic plight of young people is worth examining. But to do so requires a serious look at the real economic conditions young adults face and the reasons these conditions exist. Graham’s article, and many others like it, generally fail to consider the context in which young people are struggling to find decent jobs, including the long-term economic impacts of deregulation and neoliberalism pushed by state managers and wealthy elites for some three decades now, which have kept wages stagnant for people of all ages, including young people; the impact of the 2008 economic crisis (mostly caused by people born well before 1980); the college affordability crisis; and the fact that low-wage service-sector jobs tend to be where job growth is.
Deregulation and Other Economic Trends
To understand why millennials are facing such perilous economic conditions, one must first understand why people of all ages are suffering massive economic struggles. For some three decades, under leadership of both political parties, the policies of deregulation, privatization, neoliberalism and the globalization of finance have been disastrous for working-class people. The result of these policies advanced by Ronald Reagan, Clinton appointees such as Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin and contemporary leaders of both parties, has decimated labor unions (only 11.3 percent of workers are unionized as of 2013, a 97-year low) and with it, have stagnated wages well below the rates of productivity. The data, according to a paper from the Economic Policy Institute, is alarming. “U.S. productivity grew by 62.5 percent from 1989 to 2010, far more than real hourly wages for both private-sector and state/local government workers, which grew 12 percent in the same period,” the paper concluded. The statistics are even more depressing when they reach farther back. “The typical worker has had stagnating wages for a long time, despite enjoying some wage growth during the economic recovery of the late 1990s. While productivity grew 80 percent between 1979 and 2009, the hourly wage of the median worker grew by only 10.1 percent with all of this wage growth occurring from 1996 to 2002, reflecting the strong economic recovery of the late 1990s,” EPI concluded.
During this time there have been dramatic increases in poverty and inequality. Currently, the poverty rate (which is misleading because, as the World Bank notes, the poverty rate does not factor in increases to food and fuel costs), has edged up to about 16 percent, according to Census data, meaning about 46 million Americans are living in poverty. This is the worst poverty rate since the 1960s, according to The Associated Press. It is hard to imagine that those millennials who are among this group – and, it is worth repeating, this includes 57 percent of young black people, whose plight did not register in the minds of the Globe‘s opinion writers – are hoarding in Mom and Dad’s basement playing with their iPads. In fact, many of them are among the 643,067 people who have been forced to spend nights in homeless shelters, according to a paper from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The Impacts of the 2008 Economic Crisis
The aforementioned poverty rate has spiked from about 13 percent to 16 percent since 2008 – which was when greed and recklessness by stock-jobbers and the government that refused to rein in their crimes caused a near-collapse of the global economy. While Graham and others enjoy blaming millennials as being unique in their financial irresponsibility, the lion’s share of the blame for the 2008 crisis belongs to Baby Boomers and older Generation X’ers. It is just that millennials are bearing the brunt of the consequences of those excesses. “The latest employment figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show that young Americans continue to be left behind in America’s plodding economic recovery,” Sarah Aryes of the Center for American Progress told Truthout.
Perhaps no other demographic has been hit worse by the impacts of the 2008 crisis and the long recession and slow recovery that has followed – and this is only worsened by the other economic conditions facing young people, such as stagnated wages and rising cost of college tuition. In fact, as an article in Tablet noted, the crisis has radicalized many young people who have found that “Marxism holds new appeal” and were central to the Occupy movement, the largest such social movement based on economic justice seen in decades.
The College Affordability Crisis
Of course, millennials who wish to better their options often look to higher education – once a practical guarantee of a middle-class existence. But, this too, is no longer the case. The cost of college, which has outpaced inflation virtually every year for three decades, has made it impossible for many young people to attend. “While college has long been viewed as the ticket to a well-paying job and a middle-class life, the price of a college education for millennials is more than 1,000 times what their parents paid,” Aryes observes. In the past 30 years, a college education has increased more than 1,000 percent, compared with increases of 200 percent for gasoline and 250 percent for health care, she said.
Those who are not priced out often graduate with debt that may follow them the rest of their lives. While a Pell Grant used to cover nearly 77 percent of a public school education, it now tackles just about 36 percent. Students who attend private schools often graduate with debts ranging into six figures. And thanks to the bankruptcy reform passed by Congress in 2005, private student loans are no longer able to beremoved through bankruptcy.
The Low-Wage Problem
And even those millennials who had the fortune and resources to attend college and find work are soon realizing that the job market is not exactly matching up with their skills. The vast majority of job growth – for millennials and others – is in low-wage service-sector jobs, such as food service and retails. Many offer little to nothing in the way of benefits, vacation time and so on. A fair amount of millennials are stuck in minimum-wage jobs, which at about $15,000 a year is a total disgrace. “If our standard for minimum wages had kept pace with overall income growth in the American economy, it would now be $21.16 per hour,” calculates writer Salvatore Babones. A survey from Millennial Branding and Payscale notes that members of the younger generation are the most likely to work low-wage service-sector jobs. But this trend is not exclusive to young people. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “almost 30% of American workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs – defined as earnings at or below the poverty line to support a family of four – in 2020.” Given that many predict the US economy will never recover to pre-recession levels, there is a real fear that this is not just a temporary aberration but a scary fixture of the new economy facing young people – and one they did little or nothing to cause.
None of this has stopped corporate media outlets from “blaming the poor” and calling struggling young adults pejoratives such as lazy, entitled and minimally employable. The tendency to smear a whole generation reflects what is among the ugliest aspects of the human condition, where we continually blame the less-fortunate for our problems, with the list of people to hate ever-widening in the eyes of many misguided souls.
The truth is, millennials have much to be proud of and have turned out to be the most progressive and diverse generation in our nation’s history.When it comes to gay rights, secularism, immigrants, interracial relationships and recreational drug use, young people – described as “Generation Next” – are historically accepting of others, compared with older generations and young people polled generations ago.
While the Boston Globe and other mainstream media outlets like to smear young people – and poor people in general – as lazy cretins, the truth is that the older generations may have a lot more to learn from today’s young people than they realize. No valuable lessons will be learned so long as the media perpetuate the myth that those who struggle economically – whether newly or over the course of generations – deserve such a fate.
Michael Corcoran is a journalist based in Boston. He has written for the Boston Globe, the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Extra!, Nacla Report on the Americas, and other publications.