Millennials and Gen Z are very familiar with economic instability. Many millennials and “zoomers” grew up amid the Great Recession and both generations are familiar with the economic hardship COVID-19 caused. Today’s economy is drastically different from the economy our parents and grandparents knew. Education is more expensive, it’s harder to buy a house and the job market has become highly competitive. A common criticism of younger generations is that we have ourselves to blame for our sky-high student debt, low property ownership, financial instability and difficulty finding jobs after graduating college. The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations may have worked at one point, but hard work simply isn’t enough in America’s current economic landscape. Unlike older generations, the odds are stacked against us.
One of the most serious challenges facing millennials and Gen Z is debt. The cost of higher education is quickly increasing. From 2008-19, public college tuition increased a stunning 25.3% and private college tuition rose 29.8% nationwide. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, tuition in North Carolina rose nearly 46% or $2,321. Because higher education is so expensive, student loans have become just another part of attending college. Sixty-nine percent of the class of 2019, both undergraduate and graduate students, took out student loans. Overall, 44.7 million Americans have student loan debt, a combined $1.71 trillion in total national student loan debt. A college degree has become essential for entering the workforce. Although college is a necessity, it is priced as a luxury. Paying off student loans can take years and prevents homeownership, saving for retirement and building wealth. Unlike previous generations, young people are beginning their lives out of college already in debt.
Homeownership is very important in long-term financial stability, but young people aren’t buying homes. By age 30, 48.3% of baby boomers owned homes, but only 35.8% of millennials born from 1980-84 owned homes at the same age. Those lazy millennials just need to work harder to afford a home, right? Not exactly. A combination of student debt, difficulty finding a job and lower marriage rates are all culprits of low homeownership among millennials. Lending policies have become stricter after the 2008 housing market crash, making it harder to get a mortgage than before 2008. Gen Z isn’t quite old enough to purchase homes yet but they face many of the same challenges millennials do: student debt, a recession and a cutthroat job market.
Any recent graduate will tell you how tough the job market is. The 2020 recession makes finding a job as a new graduate harder than ever. Entering the workforce during any economic recession is difficult, but it’s even harder after the 2008 economic crash. Companies were forced to make major cuts, and that included some experienced employees. Seasoned professionals, left without work, took entry-level positions. A new graduate doesn’t stand a chance against a professional with experience in the field. The 2008 recession raised the bar for entry-level jobs. Yes, 2008 was over a decade ago but the precedent was set. College graduates with little experience were, and still are, forced to take lower-paying, poorer jobs compared to previous generations. Today, the job market is extremely competitive, so outrageous demands of 3-5 years experience and higher education for an entry-level job is a way of shrinking the pool of applicants. The bottom line is that it is much harder for young people to get a job than boomers or Gen X. It’s not laziness that prevents young people from getting work; it’s difficult economic conditions that previous generations didn’t have to face on this scale.
Criticism of young people from older generations is nothing new. Every generation was at one point criticized for being “lazy kids.” Millennials and Gen Z are in the unique case where the challenges we face, such as debt, impossible economic conditions and cutthroat job markets, are being mistaken for laziness. Young people are resilient, not lazy.