Professionally, many of today's young adults are going it alone, together.
That's the message from an online poll conducted by the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas (Austin) in association with National Journal as part of a series of town halls about the conditions facing the giant millennial generation. The survey found that many millennials are putting their careers in the hands of those they trust: themselves.
Millennials, those born between 1982 and 1996, are overwhelmingly confident in their abilities to set goals, solve problems, and face down difficult times, the poll shows. In the face of what they see as a difficult and capricious economy, many are betting on those skills. More than 46 percent of millennial respondents said they've seriously thought about starting their own business and more than one third said their "professional goal is to become an entrepreneur," according to poll results.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Online polls do not provide the same statistical validity as surveys conducted through random landline and cell-phone calling, but can offer a broad sense of attitudes, particularly with groups such as young adults who are difficult to reach through traditional means.
Millennials aren't wide-eyed about the economic circumstances they face: Almost exactly three-fifths rated the "economic conditions in this country today" as "somewhat bad" or "very bad." But race and education colored those views. Whites (at 63 percent) were more likely than nonwhites (at 55 percent) to say the economy was bad. Whites without a four-year college degree were slightly more likely than those with one to see the economy as poor: 64 percent to 59 percent.
Compared with older generations, millennials were more likely to see the solution as setting out on their own. The share of millennials who said they'd "very seriously" thought about going into business for themselves (46 percent) slightly outstripped the share of GenXers (42 percent) and dwarfed the percentage of baby boomers (24 percent) who agreed. Older generations were also less likely than their younger counterparts to say their professional goal is to become an entrepreneur. Just over one third of millennials said entrepreneurship was a goal, compared with three in 10 Gen Xers and about one in seven baby boomers.
Among millennials, minorities were even more likely than their white counterparts to say they've considered going into business for themselves; 53 percent of nonwhites said they'd thought about launching a business, compared with 42 percent of whites. Nearly 40 percent of nonwhites said their professional goal was to become an entrepreneur, compared with 31 percent of whites.
The survey found substantial anxiety across generational lines about both the economy's immediate direction and longer-term trends. A majority of millennials express a lack of confidence in the economic system they are entering in the wake of the Great Recession. A majority—nearly 52 percent—agreed that "today's economy mostly rewards the rich" and 67 percent said that "it's difficult for average people to get ahead." Again race and education level influenced respondents' views. Fifty-five percent of minorities said that today's economy awards its spoils to the wealthy; exactly half of whites agreed. Whites without a college degree were particularly likely to say it was hard for average folks to succeed: 71 percent said so, compared with 64 percent of college-educated whites.
That lack of confidence extends to their faith in the idea of equal opportunity. Less than half of millennials (44 percent) said they agreed with the core American belief that "anyone who works hard has a fair chance to succeed and live a comfortable life in this country." Minorities were again slightly more optimistic than whites. The biggest divergence was along educational lines: Whites who had a college degree were about 6 percentage points more likely to agree that hard workers had a fair chance to succeed than those without a degree. More than two-fifths (46 percent) of college-educated whites said they agreed, compared with 41 percent of whites without a college degree.
Despite their gloomy economic prognostication, the poll shows that millennials are more optimistic than members of Generation X (those born between 1960 and 1980) and the baby boom (1946-1959). Nearly 70 percent of boomers rated today's economic conditions as bad, compared with the roughly three-fifths of millennials. Boomers (at 56 percent) were also more likely than millennials (52 percent) to agree that the economy mostly rewards the rich. On both points, Gen Xers fell somewhere in between. Millennials were slightly more likely than their older counterparts combined to believe that hard workers had a fair chance to succeed.
Although a solid majority of just over three-fifths rated the economy as weak, the poll found less consensus on whether conditions were improving. Millennials split nearly evenly over whether the economy today is better or worse than it was a year ago, with about one-fourth picking each option. Just over two-fifths are about the same as they were a year ago. Millennials split in similar shares across gender and racial lines. But whites with a college degree were more likely to see improvement in the economy than those without; 28 percent of whites with a college degree said today's economy is better than a year ago, compared with 21 percent of those without a degree.
Gen Xers and boomers were also split over the direction of the economy. More than 46 percent of Gen Xers and boomers combined said they believed that today's economy is about the same as it was a year ago; 43 percent said they expected next year's economy will be about the same as they are now. About one fifth said they'd seen improvement this year over last (21 percent) and expected next year to be better as well (22 percent). Nearly one-third (29 percent) thought the economy today was worse than a year ago and more than a quarter expected next year would be worse than this (25 percent).
However, the foundering and unpredictable economy has not shaken millennials' confidence in their own abilities, the poll showed. More than 80 percent of millennial respondents said they agreed they felt confident "analyzing a long-term problem to find a solution" and "setting targets/goals."
Members of the older generations are similarly confident in their abilities—more than 80 percent of Gen Xers and boomers combined said they were confident analyzing a problem (83 percent), setting goals (81), and handling several thiings simultaneously (83).
Millennials expressed ambivalence over the value and cost of a four-year college degree. Almost three-fifths of millennials (58 percent) agreed that a college degree "is an indispensable ticket for career advancement and is worth the cost." But a majority (53 percent) also agreed that a "four-year college degree costs too much and too often doesn't lead to a good-paying job." Whites without a four-year degree (62 percent) were more likely than their college-educated peers (56 percent) to say college was indispensable and worth the cost. But those noncollege whites were also more likely to say that college costs too much and too often doesn't lead to a good-paying job (57 percent to 49 percent).
Of the three generations, millennials were the least likely to say that a four-year college degree was indispensable and worth the investment. Seventy-two percent of boomers agreed, compared with 63 percent of Gen Xers and 58 percent of millennials.
The poll reflects millennials' confidence in their own abilities in the face of strong economic headwinds. If a college degree is no longer the golden ticket it once was and the economic system can't be trusted to provide success, millennials are primed to use their skills—whatever their source—to create opportunities for themselves.
The survey was conducted in conjunction with a series of National Journal town halls on the economic and social conditions facing the giant millennial generation. The latest in those events will be held May 21 in Washington.