Millennials often get criticized for being overly entitled snowflakes with no work ethic or resilience, but the reality is often that, well, it really isn't all that easy to be a young adult in the world right now. While at one time it was reasonable to expect that you'd grow up, find a steady job, and buy a house before the age of 30, that now seems like a laughably unrealistic goal. Young adults now have much more student debt, and much less actual wealth than previous generations, and it's made homeownership much less attainable. It's probably no surprise then that millennials in the United States are less optimistic about their futures than in other countries, according to data from the Pew Research Center — although, to be fair, we're not the only ones feeling this way.
In a recent report, the Pew Research Center looked at how people in nearly 40 different countries felt about how good their lives were today compared to how they would have been 50 years ago. In most instances, millennials in general seemed to have a more positive view of their lives today compared to baby boomers, but in relation to millennials in other countries? Americans aren't exactly celebrating.
The question was posed as part of the organization's Global Attitudes Survey, with the American portion of the survey taking place between June and July 2017. In general, the participants seemed to be split on how good things actually are these days: 37 percent of Americans said they felt life in the United States was better than it was 50 years ago "for people like [them]," while 41 percent thought it was worse. That's not entirely dissimilar to other comparable countries: in Australia, 33 percent felt life was worse, and in France, 46 percent of respondents felt like things had gone downhill. But in other countries, the outlook was much more positive. 65 percent of Germans felt like life today was better for them, 64 percent in the Netherlands and Sweden agreed, and in Canada, 55 percent of people said things had improved.
The general sense of pessimism (or at least ambivalence) towards Americans' wellbeing probably isn't all that shocking, given the hugely divisive political landscape, and the tax and health care policy changes that could have a big impact on the prosperity of lower- and middle-income individuals. But, for millennials, that general sense of unease may be especially concerning, given that we're also trying to establish ourselves financially, and many of us are also raising families (or at least thinking about doing so).
When the results of the study were broken down by age group, those in the 18-29 category mostly felt that compared to decades past, life in the United States had improved (51 percent agreed). That's a pretty big increase over the overall average, but compared to other countries, American millennials weren't as happy. In the UK, for example, 66 percent of millennials said life was better, and in Australia, 63 percent agreed. In Germany, 75 percent felt optimistic about modern life, while in Sweden a whopping 79 percent of millennials thought life had improved for the better for people like them.
The disparity likely comes down to economic stress. According to Marketwatch, a study released in August found that more than 25 percent of millennials say financial stress has affected their workplace performance (which is more than twice the rate of the general population), while another 25 percent said it made them feel physically ill. According to Bloomberg, student debt in the U.S. has doubled since 2009 to more than $1.4 trillion, but wages haven't increased enough to offset the impact. What's more is that the majority of 2009 college grads have either "defaulted, missed at least four months of required payments, or were facing higher loan balances five years later" — and each year, the amount of debt racked up by the graduating class outpaces the one before.
Not all millennials are feeling the pinch though — although even that might not be particularly good news. According to Quartz, a November 2017 analysis by Credit Suisse found that millennials are likely going to face the most pronounced income inequality of recent generations, with the majority set to struggle with greater debt and less overall wealth, while some are poised to "become spectacularly wealthy" thanks to extremely high-paying jobs (the number of millennial billionaires is actually on the rise), and significant inheritances from well-off family.
In other words? If you're already doing well for yourself, you'll probably end up doing even better. If not, well, that might not necessarily change a whole lot in the years to come.
As demoralizing as these reports might be, it's valuable at least to know that millennials can still take important steps to improve their financial well-being. According to Marketwatch, millennials spend more on average on things like groceries, gas, restaurants, coffee, and cellphone bills than older generations do, which suggests that attempting to cut back in those areas could be a good way to start easing some of the financial burden. And in addition to savvier budgeting, personal finance blogger Claudia Pennington told Marketwatch that taking steps to boost your income in any way possible will also have a big effect when it comes to saving for houses, or other important financial goals.
Millennials might get a bad rap, and our relative lack of financial prosperity can often seem like a result of laziness or immaturity. But for many of us, the reality of student debt, property prices, and precarious or low-paid work means that many of the goals or expectations that would have seemed totally reasonable for our parents and grandparents are no longer within reach. And judging from the data, that might not be something that will change anytime soon.
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