Whom Do Millennials Trust Most? Themselves.

Graduates participate in Howard University's 146th commencement exercises on May 10, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Stephanie Czekalinsk
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Stephanie Czekalinsk
May 21, 2014, 4 a.m.

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.

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