At first glance, you might think this is another in a long line of reports, articles and blogs that attack millennials. You would be wrong. It’s really about how we are failing millennials, and what the consequences of this are for all of us.
The world millennials inherited was one undergoing a seismic shift. The US in the 1980s was moving away from being a manufacturing economy, with its fairly successful record of supporting a broad middle-class, to an economy increasingly reliant on a global supply chain, facilitated by an array of dramatic technological advances and decades of policy decisions. This shift impacted many facets of life, including the nature of work and the need for higher level skills.
It’s really about how we are failing millennials, and what the consequences of this are for all of us.
Using data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) on the skills of adults in literacy and numeracy, we show in our report Too Big to Fail: Millennials on the Margins that nearly half of America’s millennials—around 36 million—are attempting the transition to adult roles with low literacy skills, and more than half—about 46 million—are doing so with low numeracy skills. Millennials with low skills are more likely to be unemployed, out of the labor force, working in low-skill occupations and earning low incomes and are less likely to have health-care coverage than those with higher skills. In addition, they are less likely to have trust in others, be civically engaged, and feel as though they can influence government.
These are numbers and correlations that should shake us out of our complacency. They speak to our past in that they are in large part rooted in inequitable opportunities to acquire and develop human and social capital. But they also speak to our future if we do not change course. Given what is known about how advantages and disadvantages compound over generations, the fate of so many millennials jeopardizes not only this critical cohort, but future generations as well.
They are less likely to have trust in others, be civically engaged, and feel as though they can influence government.
In the twenty-first century U.S., there are fewer sustainable economic opportunities available to those lacking higher-level skills than was the case in the post-World War II period. The work that is available to those with lower skills often carries its own set of risks. Many hourly jobs in the burgeoning services sector—where so many with low skills find employment—do not provide health insurance, retirement benefits, sustainable wages, or even reliable hours. Making matters worse, while educational attainment rates—for both high school and many forms of postsecondary education—have increased, many young adults who have either obtained or are pursuing degrees nonetheless lack the necessary skills to advance economically and may be additionally burdened by debt for the postsecondary education they have received.
While educational attainment rates—for both high school and many forms of postsecondary education—have increased, many young adults who have either obtained or are pursuing degrees nonetheless lack the necessary skills to advance economically
Why should we care about this? As Americans, we are inextricably bound to one another, even as we are being drawn apart. In addition, we depend on those in the labor market to earn salaries that allow them to purchase goods and support other industries; and we rely on the taxes of working adults to fund public programs at the national, state, and local levels. The phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats,” popularized during the Age of Affluence in post-World War II America signified that positive changes in the economy should and would have a ripple effect and lift those in need.
But the Age of Affluence — which had at its core a broad middle class supported by skills and job opportunities that were, on the whole, reasonably well remunerated in terms of both wages and benefits – is a thing of the past. Our task now must be to reaffirm a shared contract that holds even when tides are at low ebb. If we do not, the failure will be all of ours.