By now, the stereotypes are familiar: The generation born between 1981 and 1997 is soft, lazy, and entitled. They’re too sensitive and preoccupied with newfangled, snowflakey concepts like trigger warnings and safe spaces. On the flip side, they are the way they are through no fault of their own, as older generations have saddled them with so much economic, sociopolitical, and environmental insecurity.
But the counterpoint to all these grim assessments is that, just maybe, the millennial generation has figured out quite a bit more useful information than the rest of us realize, deploying it—indeed living it—in ways that don’t make much sense to those of us stuck in old paradigms or measures of success.
For example, the affordability of higher education has been a hot topic recently; any progressive politicians who want to ascend better have some kind of low-cost, low-debt schooling near the top of their agenda. As these policy proposals sort themselves out, millennials aren’t just waiting around to see if they can get a free ride—they’re getting educated. According to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Board, 65% of millennials have at least an associate’s degree, making them the most educated generation in America. Given that four-year college grads can expect to earn about $1 million more over their lifetimes than those without a degree, this shows how millennials are putting their education to work by playing the long game.
Also consider home ownership, another “traditional” metric of success. There currently are about 8% fewer millennials ages 25 to 34 who own houses, as compared to the previous generations at that age. While economic factors—namely, how expensive housing is in urban areas—are a definite contributor to this, so are things like getting married, which millennials are also doing later in life (or not at all).
In short, the times they are a-changing. Since the end of World War II, the prototypical American Dream has revolved around “settling down” and raising a family in one’s own image, only richer and more successful than whatever conditions you came from. This arc has been considerably harder to traverse over the past 20 years or so, as endless wars and recurring recessions have left many people, not just millennials, more distrustful that these established benchmarks of success are as reliable as they used to be. (This may also explain why millennials carry slightly lower credit card debt than their GenX predecessors; they’ve learned to live with less because they have to.)
Today’s young people have also indicated a clear preference for spending their money on experiences instead of things. So instead of sinking five grand into a car and all its ancillary hassles and expenses, they’ll take the bus or a scooter, and spend that money instead on Coachella, or Burning Man, or a month-long getaway to an Indonesian beach hut. Meanwhile, all that educational debt we mentioned earlier? That is truly an investment that will pay off down the road as our economy shifts toward more service-oriented, technology-intensive jobs for which a degree is typically a must.
Anyone who’s over 40 years old has undoubtedly sought the counsel of a younger person about social media dos and don’ts, “the cloud,” or “the Google.” But before we write off this expertise as the shallow mastery of mere distractions, we might want to contemplate the possibility that millennials have figured out what’s coming next—in politics, economics, technology, and society and culture—in a far more meaningful and productive way than we thought, and realize that today’s youngsters are actually doing just fine.