Class Explains Millennials’ Stunted Economic Lives

by Vins
Published: Updated:

While pundits and politicians explain downward mobility among millennials in terms of the generation’s unrealistic expectations, indulgent spending, and antipathy toward adulthood, sociologist Victor Tan Chen explains 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 writes, “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 cites research showing that millennials who lack college degrees are likelier to be renting than those with degrees, and that working-class young adults are less likely to change residences than their better-educated peers.

A University of Arizona study found that four out of ten Americans in their early twenties get help from their parents to pay living expenses—evidence of what Chen describes as a “private safety net.” Young people increasingly depend on their parents’ pursestrings to transition into independent adulthood, but class inequalities mean that this private safety net benefits millennials from wealthier families more than others. Pundits’ calls for millennials to stop being lazy, dependent, and spineless, Chen writes, are “tinged by class, whether they acknowledge it or not.”

The solutions that Chen proposes focus on public policy. Specifically, Chen points 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 concludes, “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 omits class as an explanation in favor of comparisons of annual incomes between millennials and their parents and cultural explanations about the decreased desirability of home ownership.

Source: Victor Tan Chen, “Adulting While Poor,” Dissent, Fall 2018,

Student Researcher: Jordan Watts (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)