The oldest millennials, born in 1981 according to Pew Research Center, just hit undeniable adulthood. And, at age 35, they should have it together. Yet research and the media alike paint Generation Y as lost, poor, heavily in debt, apolitical and unemployed.
A deeper analysis, however, reveals that such data is often skewed by the inclusion of younger millennials--the youngest of whom are only 10. Upon reviewing dozens of studies, my own findings suggest that older millennials have, in fact, grown up.
Despite a mediocre economy, catastrophic education costs and constant ridicule, most 20-somethings are certain that things will get better. If the state of their older cohort is any indication, they may be right.
What follows is evidence for optimism:
Older millennials are employed.
Millennials as a whole have a higher unemployment rate than any other generation; around 12% depending on the survey. But this figure is misleading for several reasons.
First, as mentioned, the youngest millennials are 10 years old and not eligible for full-time work. Secondly, even if we only include adults ages 18 and up, 40% of 18-24 year olds are in college. Articles citing massive millennial unemployment rates sidestep this statistic. Finally, while unemployment may be high for recent college grads, multiple studies show that the unemployment rate for older millennials is the same as the rest of the nation's. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 5% of 25-34 year olds are unemployed. Meanwhile, the median salary for Americans between 28 and 36 is $48,000, and 14% earn over $100,000. And our income is improving: Pew reports that weekly earnings for millennials ages 18-34 have increased since 2012.
They're managing their debt.
Older millennials are paying back student loans and other debt surprisingly quickly. Though millennials as a group are 2.4 times more likely than average to have outstanding student loans, older millennials are only 1.8 times more likely. According to Pew, Americans under 35 are paying off their student debt faster than any other generation.
In fact, adults under 35 cut their overall levels of debt by 29% from 2007 to 2010 (from $21,912 to $15,473), while older Americans reduced theirs by only 8% ($32,543 to $30,070). And, despite rising costs of education, Pew reports that the "share of younger households with debt of any kind fell to 78%, the lowest level since the federal government started collecting that data in 1983."
Though (or perhaps because) millennials are saddled with an average of $30,000 in student debt, they have less other kinds of debt. The Wall Street Journal reports that millennials of all ages have fewer credit cards and carry an average credit card balance of $2,700--40% less than the national average. And, according to Pew, just 39% of households under 35 carried any credit card balance, compared to 50% in 2001.
They're saving earlier and more.
A Wells Fargo survey revealed that eight in 10 millennials said "the recession convinced them they must save more now." As a result, more than half regularly put away, according to TIME. Older Millennials have more saved in their 401(k) than any other generation. The U.S. Chamber Foundation found that millennials started saving for retirement an average of 13 years earlier than Baby Boomers. And, even though they're further away from retirement, millennials continue to save more than Generation X.
They're spending smarter.
Older millennials tend to spend their money on appreciable assets--like the stock market and real estate--not depreciating liabilities--like cars. In fact, only a third of millennials own a car. As consequence, only a third of under 35 year olds owed money on a car in 2011, compared with 44% in 2007.
Instead, 60% of 30-33 year olds reported owning or planning to purchase a home in the next year. For those who can't yet afford one, it's top on their to-do list. Twenty percent of adult millennials named owning a home as one of their most important priorities in life, directly behind being a good parent and having a successful marriage.
Finally, while only 27% of younger millennials invest in stocks, nearly half of older millennials do. Older millennials are also 32% more likely than the rest of the nation to engage in online trading.
They are smarter.
Forty percent of today's 30 year olds went to college, according to Pew Social Trends. Millennials as a whole have the highest high school completion rate in over two decades, with 72% graduating and 68% going on to college.
But older millennials aren't just more educated. By some standards, they're more intelligent. University of Otago psychology and political studies professor Jim Flynn famously found that U.S. IQ scores have steadily risen in the last century; the average person now has a higher IQ than 95% of the population had in 1900. Millennials consequently score six to nine points higher than their parents' generation, Flynn told The Washington Post.
Millennials are "more adapted to a far more complicated world," says Flynn. People with high IQs are lateral thinkers prone to "solving business problems on [their] feet rather than running to the boss for help." They're also better able to "attack a wider range of conceptual problems." More concretely, the American Psychological Association points out that high IQ scores are correlated with both high grades in school and superior job performance.
If you're not yet impressed with today's 30-something millennials, consider that they had just entered the workforce during the 2008 recession. Millennials will compose three-quarters of working-age Americans by 2025 . The oldest among them, symbols of resilience, are prepared to lead us.
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