Skip Navigation

Close and don't show again.

Your browser is out of date.

You may not get the full experience here on National Journal.

Please upgrade your browser to any of the following supported browsers:

Young People Seek Shelter From The Storm Young People Seek Shelter From The Storm

This ad will end in seconds
Close X

Want access to this content? Learn More »

Forget Your Password?

Don't have an account? Register »

Reveal Navigation



Young People Seek Shelter From The Storm

Large numbers of the young adults in the massive Millennial Generation have come to crave certainty as they struggle through the downturn.

Complete Topline Results For Allstate/National Journal Poll [PDF]

No Thaw Yet For ObamaAttitudes toward the President and his policies have barely budged since January. [more...]

SPECIAL REPORTThe Next EconomyThe first part of National Journal and The Atlantic's series on the next economy looks at the generation that will be shaped most by changes under way: those born between 1981 and 2002. [more...]

Heather Person didn't think it would be this hard to launch her career.

Having endured a difficult childhood, she wanted to counsel kids as a social worker. But her grades skidded in her senior year at California Lutheran University in 2008 as she battled lupus, and she was unable to get into graduate school. Dusting herself off, Person found a job after graduation counseling prison inmates with drug problems. She had to quit, however, after an outbreak of infectious disease at the prison posed a threat to her lupus-compromised immune system. Now the 24-year-old is back to square one in her hometown of Montrose, Calif.


"I've been looking for a job ever since," Person says. "I've put in applications to grocery stores, to Mobil for the graveyard shift, and I can't get a job anywhere. No one's even calling me back. I went to Cal-Lutheran, worked hard, and now I'm living back with my mom, without a job."

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey on the economic experiences and attitudes of young adults (ages 18 to 29) shows that Person is hardly alone in her predicament. The poll found that large numbers of the massive Millennial Generation are struggling through the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Just one-sixth of the Millennials surveyed say they are earning enough to live comfortably. Nearly 60 percent of them are weighed down by student loans or other debts. A significant number -- whether living on their own or not -- report that they still rely on financial help from their parents. And about one-fourth of older Millennials, those ages 25 to 29, said they are still or once again living with their parents -- often after losing jobs they thought pointed them toward independence. "I'm 25. I lived on my own for seven years successfully and then lost my job and had to move back in with my parents," Andrew Benvenuti of Haverhill, Mass., said with the mixture of disappointment and astonishment that characterizes many in his situation.

The Millennials' responses to the challenges they face are as striking as the difficulties themselves, survey answers suggest. Buffeted by this tempestuous economy, many Millennials are urgently seeking shelter from the storm. Their generation is renowned for placing a high priority on personal expression, making a difference in society, and accumulating fulfilling experiences. Those instincts still resonate through the poll -- in the substantial number of young adults who report volunteering their time, for example, or who express interest in public service careers in education, government, or with nonprofit organizations. But across a wide range of economic choices, the survey finds that the ferocity of the recession has left this generation with a powerful craving for certainty. Millennials would much rather stockpile savings in a bank or pay down debt than invest in the stock market. What's even more striking is that they clearly prefer stability with one employer to the opportunity to frequently change jobs. Person, who participated in the survey, says flatly, "I'm looking for stability. That wasn't always my outlook. I used to want more excitement, but now that I see people losing their jobs, and I've lost my job, stability has become my main goal. I just want to be able to get a job, pay the bills, and pay down my debt."


Feeling Exposed

The Millennial Generation is most commonly defined as people born between 1981 and 2002. Nearly 92 million strong, it is now the nation's largest generation, according to the Census Bureau. It is also the most diverse: About two-fifths of Millennials are African-American, Hispanic, or members of other racial minorities.

The latest Allstate/National Journal survey, which polled the adult portion of this massive generation, is the fifth in a series exploring how average Americans are navigating the changing economy. The polls are supervised by Ed Reilly and Brent McGoldrick of FD, a communications strategy consulting firm.

The latest effort had two components: A traditional telephone survey of 1,200 adults ages 18 or older, taken from April 22 through 26, examined views on the economy and the political debate in Washington. The margin of error was %C2%B12.8 percentage points. (See story, p. 34). Then, to explore the Millennial Generation's attitudes in greater depth, FD conducted an online survey of 1,021 adults ages 18 to 29. That poll, also taken from April 22 through 26, had a margin of error of %C2%B13.1 percentage points.


Reilly, the CEO of FD Americas, said that the survey of young people was conducted online for several reasons. "The Millennial Generation is extremely difficult to reach via traditional telephone landline polling methods. Additionally, in order to use this Heartland Monitor poll to dig deeply into various aspects of how Millennials are experiencing this recession, we conducted a longer-form survey that involved detailed question structures," Reilly said. "This kind of research does not lend itself well to cellphone surveys. Therefore, given 93 percent Internet penetration among the 18-to-29-year-old age cohort, we concluded that our research objectives would be best met conducting this research online." Similar considerations have also led other organizations, such as Tufts University, to conduct surveys online when they are aimed at young adults.

The Millennial adults -- those ages 18 to 29 -- are distributed broadly between work and school. Almost one-third have full-time jobs. Another one-fifth combine part-time work with education; one-fifth more are full-time students. About one in seven are homemakers, and one in eight are seeking work but can't find it, the poll found.

As workers on the economy's lowest rungs, many of these young people feel acutely exposed to the recession's fury. "The job market right now is very competitive, very tough," said poll respondent Jaron Miller, a 28-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., who dropped out of school after 11th grade. "I was working at a Veterans Administration hospital doing valet parking. And my company went out of business. That was a year ago. I found something temporary, a little three-day gig for a temp agency, but that's about it."

The pain of such experiences ripples through the Millennials' assessments of the economy. Just one-sixth of those polled say they "can live comfortably and save an adequate amount for retirement or other needs." Another 40 percent say they "can get by every month but... find it difficult to save and invest." Fully 32 percent say they "find it hard to make ends meet every month."

Other measures in the survey also capture the economic strain on this generation. A striking 39 percent of respondents say they receive financial help from their parents or other relatives. It's probably not too surprising that relatives are providing aid to about half of Millennials ages 18 to 24; more revealing is that even 25 percent of those ages 25 to 29 are receiving such help. So are about one-fourth of Millennials who work full-time. Just as telling, one-third of Millennials said they are now living with their parents. That includes not only about two-fifths of those ages 18 to 24 but also a head-turning one-fourth of Millennials ages 25 to 29.

Andrew Benvenuti is part of that bounce-back generation. After dropping out of college, he worked as a manager of a clothing store. The business failed last December, and he was unemployed for three months before finding a job in a call center for a pizza company -- for $20,000 a year less. His reversal of fortune landed him in his sister's old bedroom at his parents' home. Benvenuti is hoping to move out this summer, but even then, he says, he'll have to double up with roommates to economize. Like many of those surveyed, Benvenuti feels squeezed by the ripple effects from layoffs across the economy. "I'm now in an entry-level position, so it's significantly lower pay and much less interesting," he says, sighing. "Everyone my age that I know is having trouble finding the types of jobs that were available before the recession, because everyone who's older than us and has more experience is now being forced to apply for the jobs that we should be getting."

Story Continues Below Chart

Only about three in 10 Millennials say that their generation has been especially victimized by the recession. About twice as many feel that the downturn has been "just as bad or even worse" on older generations. But Millennials are closely divided about the long-term impact. Forty-four percent say that the "slump will not have a lasting negative impact" on their opportunities. But 42 percent think that the parched job market for people their age "has set us back for years" and that Millennials are "unlikely to [obtain] the same earnings or career opportunities" that would have been available had they joined the labor force in more-prosperous times. Most economists who have studied the issue agree that young people who enter the workforce during a downturn never entirely recover.

In recent elections, Millennials have tilted toward the Democrats (Barack Obama carried 66 percent of them in 2008) and displayed a marked receptivity to activist government. Those inclinations are still apparent in the survey, but the recession appears to have dented them. In the poll, Obama's job-approval rating among Millennials stood at 56 percent, with 36 percent disapproving; 46 percent say they would vote to re-elect him, while 39 percent would not. Both measures suggest that Obama's popularity among this generation has declined, but this far out from 2012 his approval rating is almost certainly a better gauge of his strength than the re-election number.

A plurality of Millennials say they believe that the president's agenda will increase rather than diminish opportunities for their generation (41 percent to 27 percent). More respondents say that his policies averted an even worse economic crisis (44 percent) than believe that Obama ran up the national debt without doing much good (36 percent). By 46 percent to 31 percent, they also say that the comprehensive health care reform bill Obama recently signed into law is a good thing for the country. Just one-fourth believe that the country is worse off because of the president's policies; the rest feel that his efforts have significantly improved conditions (16 percent) or are beginning to move the nation in the right direction, even if they haven't yet produced major gains (43 percent).

The survey also finds Millennials leaning toward an activist role for Washington, but not overwhelmingly. By 45 percent to 36 percent, they prefer a Democratic-tilting agenda of investment in infrastructure, education, and research over a Republican-styled focus on tax cuts and deregulation. Just one-fourth of them second the conservative sentiment that government is more the problem than the solution to the country's economic difficulties; another one-fourth say that government must play an active role in meeting those challenges. The decisive remaining 37 percent say they could support an activist government in theory but are uncertain they can trust Washington to produce results for their generation. Across all of these questions, white Millennials express considerably more skepticism about government in general and Obama in particular than their nonwhite contemporaries.

Looking forward, Millennials appear understandably divided over what their futures hold. Almost two-thirds predict that the economy will improve over the next 12 months; less than one-fourth believe that it will deteriorate. Jayson Stock, a 28-year-old college graduate who works for an oil company in Oklahoma City, is one of the optimists. "Even right now, you can see some of the bounce-back," he says. "In my 401(k) I'm up 30 percent on the year." Still, the optimism is far from boundless. Just 12 percent of poll respondents believe that the economy will significantly improve over the next year.

But for many Millennials, the longer-term forecast remains stormy. Three-fifths believe that during the next decade the U.S. economy will experience more "severe cycles of boom and bust than in previous decades." Asked to assess the effect of globalization, 31 percent said that it increased opportunities for their generation, while 42 percent said it diminished them. Just 36 percent believe that their personal standard of living will eventually exceed that of their parents; 31 percent believe they will match their parents' living standards; and 23 percent think they will never be as well off as their parents. "Our generation is not going to do as well as our parents because of this start we've gotten," Heather Person frets. Strikingly, on this core question, racial minorities express considerably more optimism than Person and other white respondents. Fully 45 percent of nonwhite Millennials expect to be better off economically than their parents. Only one-third of whites share that attitude.

Education: How Valuable?

Like an earthquake that cracks foundations, the Great Recession has shaken the bedrock assumptions of many Millennials about what it takes to succeed.

That questioning starts with the first step on a career path -- obtaining an education. Federal data show that workers with four-year college degrees now earn about 80 percent more annually than workers with only a high school education, more than double the gap in the 1960s. About one-third of Millennials, the poll found, have completed or are pursuing a college degree; nearly one-third more say they intend to eventually graduate from college. Many see a sheepskin as the bare minimum requirement for competing in today's job market. "A college degree these days feels like the equivalent of a high school diploma," says Stacey Van Zuiden, 25, a first-year law student in Des Moines.

And yet the survey determined that many Millennials are uncertain whether the benefits of advanced education still exceed the costs. When young adults who have either obtained a college degree or are seeking one were asked whether the benefits will justify the expense, they said yes, 72 percent to 20 percent. Stock, the Oklahoma oil employee, has no doubts that college was worth the money. "I came out with $40,000 in debt," he says. "For the great job I have, that $40,000 is peanuts." But on another key question, Millennials displayed more uncertainty about the value of advanced education -- an ambivalence that remained in follow-up interviews. Asked to measure the value of a college education, 42 percent described it as "a ticket to the middle class that helps people get good jobs and build successful careers." But 46 percent viewed it as "an economic burden that is often too expensive." Those whose parents completed college were much more likely to consider it valuable than those whose parents did not. And in what might be an especially poignant testament to disillusionment about the job market, Millennials ages 18 to 24 were more likely to see value in higher education than those ages 25 to 29; likewise, more of those still studying said it was worth it than those working full-time. Michael Speakman is unemployed after financial problems forced him to leave college in 2008. He voices that skepticism when he says that if he had completed his degree, "I would probably be in the same situation -- just with a lot more debt."

Two factors may partly explain those reactions. One is that a 55 percent majority of those surveyed said they could meet the demands of their current job with less education than they have; only 39 percent said that their job frequently requires them "to use the skills and knowledge I gained through my education." The other is that 28 percent of Millennials report that they are carrying student-loan debt. (That total includes half of those who have completed or are attending college, plus others who started but never finished.)

When combined, these factors leave many of those surveyed with an attitude toward their college education that might be described as hopeful uncertainty or anxious optimism. Michael Richmond, a 28-year-old computer consultant in Schofield, Wis., speaks for many when he grades the value of his education (a community college degree in electronics followed by a four-year degree in history) as, essentially, an "incomplete." He says, "I'm assuming it will help me in the long run, but that's not really panning out right now."

The case of Rebekah Evington, a 25-year-old teacher in Mills River, N.C., illustrates the difficult calculations that steadily rising tuition costs are forcing young people to make. She is graduating in May with a master's degree in education that she pursued because she believed it was "the only way to make enough to live off of" as a teacher. Obtaining that degree, however, burdened her with $50,000 in loans. "It's going to help me make more money... but I will have to pay off a lot of debt," she says. "I'm sure it will pay off eventually, but for a while it's going to be tough." Ironically, after she earns her master's, Evington anticipates adding a part-time job to her workload as a teacher -- to help cover her loans.

Story Continues Below Chart

Flip-Flops To Flannel

Millennials' reassessments extend to the next steps along the career path. Analysts have often called this generation innovative, entrepreneurial, and resilient, and all of those traits are clearly visible in the poll results. Despite all of the upheaval in their lives, Millennials still believe -- by 2-to-1 -- that their own efforts, rather than outside events, will determine their economic fate. Nearly one in five say they believe that starting their own business would offer them the greatest chance of career success. About three-fifths of them say they are willing to relocate for employment. More than one-fifth volunteer at least five hours a week.

But for a generation that has grown up in baggy shorts and flip-flops, the poll suggests that the gray flannel suit is suddenly looking more attractive. In answering a wide assortment of questions, many Millennials expressed a strong desire for structure, predictability, and security in their economic lives. "Long-term stability is tops on my list," Richmond, the computer consultant, says. Heather Thorpe, a 23-year-old in Machesney Park, Ill., just graduated from an online floral design school. "I'm hoping to eventually own my own shop," she says, "but right now I'm just trying to have some financial stability."

A solid majority of Millennials, 55 percent to 34 percent, would prefer "long-term employment with a single employer" to the "opportunity to change employers and even professions" during their career. They divide evenly when asked whether they hope to stay in their current job for at least 10 years (42 percent yes, 42 percent no). Almost half of those ages 25 to 29 would like to stay at least a decade; only 34 percent want to switch jobs. Asked what type of employment offers them the best opportunity to achieve their goals, nearly half picked what have historically been the most stable options: large companies, government, education, and the military. When poll respondents were asked to rank their most important priorities in the workplace, job security finished slightly ahead of high pay, a flexible work schedule, solid benefits, intellectual stimulation, and the opportunity to make a difference in society.

Millennials show similarly chastened attitudes toward managing their money. Just over half say that the stock market is not the best way to build a retirement nest egg because it is too risky; only about one-fifth believe that stocks offer the best option. Given a hypothetical $100 to invest, the poll found, Millennials displayed a cautious approach, such as saving in a bank ($29 on average) or paying down debt ($27) rather than buying a home ($20), contributing to a retirement plan ($16), or investing in the stock market ($8). "I really hope that we learn from the credit mistakes [of older generations], manage our money better, and invest in our future more than we would have," Evington, the teacher, said.

Time, economic recovery, and the allure of a future bull market on Wall Street may weaken that commitment to financial caution. But it's also possible that the Great Recession will prompt the Millennial Generation, which has already displayed a powerful inclination toward civic engagement, to blend creativity with reliability in appealing new combinations and to prioritize investment in the future over immediate gratification -- much as the cauldron of the Depression and World War II molded the so-called Greatest or GI Generation that built postwar America.

All signs indicate that this recession has struck its harshest blows and won't last nearly as long or cut as deeply as the Depression. But Van Zuiden, the law student, probably isn't alone among Millennials in wondering whether today's challenges will shape her generation as lastingly as hard times stamped the GI Generation. She recalls interviewing her grandmother about the Depression for a high school project. "I asked her about her childhood. And I think I see ways in which my generation is repeating that mentality of not taking a lot of things for granted," Van Zuiden said. "I think my grandmother's generation learned invaluable lessons that made our country better. I hate buying into the sappy idea of 'What doesn't kill us will just make us stronger,' but I think there's a lot of truth in that."

Research Associates Josh Freedman and Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.

This article appears in the May 8, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.

comments powered by Disqus