Are the Millennials Secretly Prosperous?Breaking News
tags: Millennials, demographics, generations
“Millennials are many things, but above all, they are murderers,” Mashable noted in 2017, introducing a list of 70 items and institutions that Millennials were purported to have “killed,” including napkins, breakfast cereal, department stores, the 9-to-5 workday, and marriage. The list was tongue-in-cheek—the cereal aisle persists—but it captured something essential about a generation that has reshaped old habits of American life.
Even amid this slaughter of tradition, Millennials are best known for another characteristic: how broke they are. Millennials, it’s often said, are the first American generation that will do worse than its parents financially.
Pick up a book on Millennials, or wander into a discussion about them online, and this theme pops up again and again: The once-optimistic children of the 1980s and early ’90s are now wheezing under the burden of college debt, too poor to buy houses or start families, sucker punched by a hostile economy that bears no resemblance to the one their parents enjoyed as young adults.
“We’re only now starting to grasp the degree to which we have gotten screwed,” Jill Filipovic wrote in her 2020 book, OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind, “and we’re responding with desperation and sometimes anger.” The famous rebuke that Filipovic takes as the book’s title isn’t mere snark, she writes; it’s “a final, frustrated dismissal from people suffering years of political and economic neglect.” In a Morning Consult poll last year, 45 percent of Millennials, compared with 35 percent of all adults, agreed with the statement “Because of my money situation, I will never have the things I want in life.” Fifty-two percent of Millennials said they were concerned that “the money I have or will save won’t last.”
The mythology of the generation begins with the participation trophies and limitless expectations granted to its members in childhood by parents and teachers newly eager to build self-esteem. (I wrote about the implications of that approach in my 2006 book, Generation Me.) But the story is centered on the wreckage of the Great Recession, when those youthful expectations violently collided with the worst financial crisis in nearly a century. The sense of betrayal in OK Boomer and other writings is both palpable and understandable. If anything, it only seems to have hardened over time.
Impressions of generations tend to form early, and they often get cast in amber. As a scholar of generations, I’m well aware of that. But even I was surprised when I returned to my study of Millennials to look at the generation as it enters middle age.
The surprise was this: Millennials, as a group, are not broke—they are, in fact, thriving economically. That wasn’t true a decade ago, and prosperity within the generation today is not evenly shared. But since the mid-2010s, Millennials on the whole have made a breathtaking financial comeback.
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