Millennials' Endless Youth: It's Not Their Fault

The very first episode of the Zeitgeist-y TV show "Girls" depicted the parents of main character Hannah yanking their financial support of what they call her "groovy lifestyle." They are fed up with funding Hannah's work as an unpaid intern after she graduated from an expensive liberal arts college. As a stepparent to two early-20-somethings, I watched this and chuckled knowingly. When will these (darn) kids foot their own phone bills, get real jobs, and find apartments? A new report released by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce says that young adults' "failure to launch" is more about serious structural shifts in the economy and less about mom's free Wi-Fi.

"The economy determines what the possibilities are for people," Anthony Carnevale, center director and lead author of the study, tells Yahoo Shine, debunking the idea that some widespread character flaw is slowing down the millennial generation. "This generation has challenges that no other generation has faced. The on-ramp to career requires more entry-level preparation [than it did for previous generations]." He points out that while the cost of education has skyrocketed, a high school degree isn't enough to get a job anymore. Meanwhile, millions of positions were lost during the Great Recession, and those 20-somethings who did find employment were often the first to go during layoffs. "A lot of young people aren't making it from youth dependency to independent adulthood," he says.

The report analyzed census data going back to 1980. It describes a "lost decade" for young people "marked by a declining access to full-time jobs." The linear path from school to work to retirement is no longer a given. Young adults are starting work later and earning less money than previous generations. Consequently, they are living with their families longer and delaying marriage and having their own children. The job numbers are sobering:

  • Millennials' participation in the labor force has dropped to the lowest levels since 1972.

  • Only 1 in 3 people in their early twenties have full-time jobs. Half of adults in their late 20s are employed full time.

  • Young adults are taking longer to earn a decent salary. Over the last 30 years, the average age at which they achieved the median wage was 26; now it's 30.

  • 20-somethings change jobs frequently; only 1 in 10 describes their work as a "career."

The economy is particularly hard on young blue-collar workers, men, and African Americans.

  • Since 2000, the full-time employment rate for young men dropped from 80 to 65 percent — a level not seen since the Great Depression.

  • The employment rate for millennials lacking a college degree dropped from 66 to 53 percent.

  • from 2000 to 2012, average annual earnings for young adults across all education levels dropped, but the decline was greatest for those who had only completed high school.

  • The unemployment rate for 18- to 24-year-old African Americans is double that of young Caucasians — 30 percent versus 14 percent, up from 23 percent in 2000.

One of the bright spots in the study is that more women are working and earning higher wages than in the 1980s. According to the report, "Young women — whose postsecondary enrollment and attainment rates have soared since the 1980s, surpassing young men in the early 1990s and widening the gap in the years since — have gained considerable ground in the labor market." One of the main reasons for this is that women are becoming better educated by necessity. "Women need the extra degree to get traction," says Carnevale. "Females have taken advantage of education as a mobility strategy." While men may be able to enter the workforce with a two-year certificate, women, for the most part, need a bachelor's degree at a minimum. This gives women wider career options and more earning potential over the long run.

Carnevale says that the formula for career success today is more complicated than simply getting a college degree. He recommends students quiz the departments they are interested in majoring in on what kinds of jobs students actually get after they graduate. For lower income families who might only be able to afford helping their child obtain a two-year certificate, advance planning and research is even more important. "The less education you get, the more specific it has to be." The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides reliable data on the occupations with the greatest projected growth.

The report pushes for educational institutions to provide greater transparency about the alignment of career options and educational pathways — something that President Obama has also called for along with Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Warner and Marco Rubio. Carnevale projects that eventually college guides may provide information on job statistics along with a description of campus life. While he says students "should still take Shakespeare," he also suggests that they need to be more calculating. Kids who are looking at higher education first need to decide what they want to do and "then add a dose of reality and form a strategy." There's some good news on the horizon for those who have already graduated and are looking for a job — more job opportunities will open as baby boomers retire.