Millennials often get a bad rap from older generations who think young adults had it too easy growing up, which prompted them to become lazy and entitled.
However, experts say the struggle is real for U.S. millennials because they are the first generation to feel the full impact of decades of rising inequality in America.
These young Americans in their 20s and 30s earn less money without a college degree, and are more likely to die young from suicide or drug overdoses than the generations that came before them, according to a new report.
The problems plaguing millennials are the result of economic decisions made in the late '70s and early '80s, according to sociologist David Grusky, director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University, and one of the report's authors.
"This is when income inequality starts to take off. This is when we lost a lot of the middle income, typically manufacturing jobs, but without thinking once about trying to take care of those people who lost out by virtue of globalization and trade and outsourcing and the like," Grusky says. "That period, late '70s, early '80s, when we decided to fashion our economy in a new way ... was the starting of this set of forces that, in the end, hurt millennials so much."
The millennial disadvantage began as soon as they entered the job market which, for many of them, was during the Great Recession. Lasting from 2007 until 2009, the downturn was the most severe U.S. economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. That meant a delayed entry into the job market for some, and those who did get work often accepted positions for which they were overqualified.
"We know that has been a long-run scarring effect, not just an immediate shock, but a long-run deterioration in their prospects, because that point of entry was so traumatic," Grusky says.
To make matters worse, public schools were receiving less funding because states had less money during the recession. Public colleges often responded by increasing tuition, which meant more students graduated with both a diploma and high student debt.
"They couldn't get employed in a way that past generations could, so they couldn't pay off their loans," Grusky says. "They get hammered on both. Then, they had to take out more loans, and then they didn't have the resources to pay them back."
Among the hardest-hit millennials are those who didn't go to college.
A 25-year-old millennial man with a high school degree or less makes an average of $29,000 per year. That's about $2,600 less than the generation before them, the Gen Xers, people aged 38 to 53, and almost $10,000 less than baby boomers, those aged 54 to 72, earned at the same age.
African American millennials are also struggling more. The racial gap in young adult homeownership is now larger than it was before the civil rights period of the 1960s, according to Grusky.
"We know that the Great Recession hit African Americans who were homeowners harder than other homeowners because they had bought later and under less favorable terms and in less desirable neighborhoods," he says.
All of these obstacles may be the cause of more premature deaths. Death rates of people aged 25 to 34 shot up 20% between 2008 and 2016. Most of that increase was the result of rising suicides and drug overdoses. The mortality rate was highest — 27% — among non-Hispanic whites.
"I find it troubling that so much of the journalistic commentary on millennials adopts a bit of a blaming tone," Grusky says. "I like to think of millennials as canaries in the coal mine that tell us how toxic this new economy is. The canaries aren't faring well, and we don't typically blame canaries when they die in a coal mine full of toxic fumes. We blame the coal mine and the fumes."