While pundits and politicians explain downward mobility among millennials in terms of that generation’s unrealistic expectations, indulgent spending, and antipathy toward adulthood, sociologist Victor Tan Chen explained that the Great Recession “stunted millennials’ economic lives at a critical age” and that class inequalities—not “lousy values”—best explain many millennials’ poor economic prospects. “Thanks in part to the country’s widening income gap,” Chen wrote, “the picture of ‘how millennials are doing’ is dramatically different depending on which segment of the population you happen to be looking at.”
Defining class by income and education, with the working class making less than the median household and not possessing a four-year degree, Chen cited research showing that millennials who lack college degrees are more likely to be renting than those with degrees, and that working-class young adults are less likely to change residences than their better-educated peers.
Chen cited research that found four out of ten Americans in their early twenties get help from their parents to pay living expenses—evidence of what he described as a “private safety net.” Young people increasingly depend on their parents’ savings to transition into independent adulthood, but class inequalities mean that private safety nets benefit millennials from wealthier families more than millennials from families with lesser means. Pundits’ calls for millennials to stop being lazy, dependent, and spineless, Chen wrote, are “tinged by class, whether they acknowledge it or not.”
The solutions that Chen proposed focus on public policy. Specifically, Chen pointed to countries—such as Denmark and Sweden—with social safety nets, including housing subsidies, education benefits, unemployment compensation, universal medical care, and job training programs and apprenticeships. “What distinguishes millennials,” Chen concluded, “is how thoroughly their generation has been shaped by America’s stark and growing class inequality.”
By contrast, establishment news coverage of millennials’ economic (mis)fortunes, in outlets such as CNBC and USA Today, has omitted class as an explanation for the decreased incomes millennials receive in comparison to their parents, opting instead to speculate about the apparently decreased desirability of home ownership. In February 2017, the New York Times reported that “about 40 percent of 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds receive some financial assistance from their parents for living expenses,” but the article did not frame millennials’ lack of economic mobility in terms of class inequalities.
Victor Tan Chen, “Adulting While Poor,” Dissent, Fall 2018, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/adulting-while-poor-millenial-homeownership.
Student Researcher: Jordan Watts (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)