As a millennial myself, and especially as the executive director of an organization that researches about and advocates for millennials, I get asked almost daily about the key traits that define the largest and most diverse generation in American history. While our generation is still defining itself, we do know that what it takes for a young adult to get by in the economic landscape we inherited is a tremendous amount of perseverance and passion, the two defining aspects of “grit,” according to Angela Duckworth’s recent commentary on the topic.
Duckworth says baby boomers have more grit than millennials do. Some go further, saying we are lazy or that we lack the character necessary to get through challenging times. But those assumptions just don’t bear out when you look at the facts. What really defines our generation is our ability to remain resiliently optimistic about our future when we are constantly asked to do more with less than our parents or their parents had.
Millennials, for instance, still feel acutely the economic impact of the financial crisis, which combined with the effects of workforce trends of the past few decades. Many Americans of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations had the ability to graduate from high school and find a family-sustaining job with good pay and a solid pension. They could pay for their college degrees without taking on burdens of crushing student debt, which allowed them to capitalize on financial opportunities and accumulate savings and wealth.
Today’s reality is a different story. The millennial unemployment rate remains over one-third higher than the national average. And for those who have work, median wages for younger millennial workers (age 18-24) have dropped 10% in the last decade, which is nearly double the decrease older generations have experienced during the same time.
Meanwhile, my generation has seen college tuition skyrocket — in some cases double — and higher education investment plummet to account for state budget shortfalls during the Great Recession. Today, college graduates walk across the stage averaging nearly $30,000 of student debt, an amount unheard of 20 years ago. And schools just don’t do enough to make sure that students graduate with a valuable degree even as they take on that debt. It’s no wonder that we are struggling to invest in our future, build a business or save for retirement.
Another big challenge: All this is happening as the demands for a highly skilled workforce grow while the prospects for on-the-job training or credentialing shrink. By 2020, 65% of jobs in the United States will require a postsecondary degree, and millennials know that getting that degree can be critical to long-term success. But gaining the skills and education we need to compete has become increasingly difficult.
On top of trying to find a good job or complete a degree to build a career, nearly a third of millennials are also raising families. Millennials represent 83% of new mothers. We are juggling caregiving and household expenses, even as we experience the highest poverty rate of any cohort of young parents in the last 25 years. More than one in five millennial parents lives in poverty.
A huge part of my work at Young Invincibles involves speaking with young people in communities across the country and hearing their stories. And hearing from a young man in Houston who, while working full-time as a waiter, had to live in his car for six months because he didn’t make enough money to pay rent; or the young woman in New Jersey who had to walk her daughter across a highway at 7 every morning to drop her off at the only day care center she could afford, just to make it to class by 8; or the countless young people who go to school, work day and night jobs to pay for it, all while caring for their children, starting to plan for long-term support of aging parents, and working tirelessly to build a better future for their families, I can say that millennials have got the perseverance component of grit covered.
And don’t tell me we don’t have passion. Young adults aren’t just talking about making a better world, we are actively contributing our time and money to it. In the face of declining wages and rampant economic challenge, a 2014 report found that 84% of millennials donated to charitable causes. Research also shows that we are looking for jobs with meaning; more than half of young workers say that having a job where they can make an impact was important to their happiness. We are also contributing to our communities, as nearly half of young adults in a recent CASE survey volunteered in 2014.
In the end, the fact remains: We’re a generation that does more with less, while thinking about our own futures and trying to build a better tomorrow for those around us. What could be grittier than that?