Are Today's Millennials The 'Screwed Generation'?

Aug 31, 2012
Originally published on September 3, 2012 4:18 pm

U.S. student loan debt tops $1 trillion, and young people face disproportionately high unemployment. Writer Joel Kotkin points to these numbers when he claims today's millennial generation is getting the short end of the stick. Kotkin speaks with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about his Newsweek/Daily Beast article on what he calls the "screwed generation."

Recent college graduates "are growing up in a terrible economy that's generating very few jobs. So, they're stepping in it, if you will, economically," Kotkin tells Martin. And, he says, "they're going to inherit an enormous debt" run up by the federal, state and local governments — "that they are going to have to pay for."

On top of that, Kotkin says, they face a high amount of college loan debt they can't afford because baby boomers are staying in their jobs longer, creating a tight labor market. "And, of course, the problem is that they racked up that debt, and they can't pay it because they can't get a decent job. So that's a pretty good definition of being screwed," he says.

Kotkin says one of the reasons millennials are in this situation is the push for a college degree, which in earlier generations led to a better job.

"In my parents' generation, the sort of World War II/Depression generation, if you got a college degree you were pretty guaranteed of a decent job because there weren't that many people with BAs," he says. "There was a huge growth in the number of jobs that needed these skills, and a relative paucity [of people to fill them]. Now the BA has become a commodity — there are so many of them.

"And then, I think, there are also many young people who have been pushed into four-year schools where they would have been better off with technical training or a two-year degree, or going out and getting a job. And now they're stuck with debt."

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The Democratic National Convention gets underway in Charlotte, North Carolina tomorrow. We'll talk politics with our guests from there and here. Later, we are going to talk now and then. Coming up, I'll speak with a group of voters who were on the program four years ago when the Democratic primary was still hot and heavy.

Four years later we'll see how they are feeling about their president and the country as Election Day comes closer. But first we wanted to focus on another group of voters that demographers sometimes call millennials. Those are people born between 1980 and the year 2000, or thereabouts.

They are known for being the first generation to come of age in the digital era and for coming out in record numbers for President Obama in the last election. But they're also known for something else - huge debts, mainly to pay for their educations - and huge challenges as a result of that debt.

Recently, Joel Kotkin wrote an article in Newsweek and the Daily Beast and, sorry parents, I'm quoting here, he calls millennials the screwed generation. And he joins us now to talk about why he thinks they're screwed and what could be done to help them out. Joel Kotkin, thanks so much for joining us.

JOEL KOTKIN: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Now, your piece cites a lot of reasons why you call this the quote/unquote "screwed generation." I just want to ask you to name a couple and I might pick up the thread.

KOTKIN: Well, the biggest thing of course is they're growing up - particularly the people who are graduating now, people in their 20s, are growing up in a terrible economy that's generating very few jobs. So they're sort of stepping in it, if you will, economically.

Second of all, they're going to inherit an enormous debt that their parents basically accumulated in the federal government, local governments, and city governments, tremendous pension obligations, obligations of transfer payments that they're going to have to pay for.

And the third is the debt that they themselves have had, as many of them have gone to college and really racked up hundreds of thousands, in some cases, of debt. And of course the problem is that they racked up that debt and they can't pay because they can't get a decent job. So that's a pretty good definition of being screwed.

MARTIN: You know, both the public debt and personal debt looms large in your piece but you also say that the media net worth of people under 35 has taken a huge hit, fallen 37 percent between 2005 and 2010. Why do you think that is?

KOTKIN: Well, the fact is that there just aren't enough jobs out there for people to generate any sort of savings, any kind of investment. It's extraordinary what the young people are now having to endure, and it's extraordinary that this has not become, I think, a number one political issue in this campaign.

MARTIN: That is interesting. I am interested in your take on that too, but I want to unpack your analysis a little more. In your article you are very tough on the Baby Boomers for a number of things. One is, you know, staying in jobs that would normally go to recent college graduates. I think, you know, we could argue with you on that, because the economy being what it is I don't know that you could fault people for, you know, staying in jobs.

KOTKIN: Well, I don't fault them for that.

MARTIN: But you also take some Boomers to task, specifically teachers, and I think maybe more broadly the kind of entire educational establishment, for pushing more and more kids to college. And you're saying that doesn't pay off, that that for many kids, especially if they're not in fields that are specifically oriented toward making money or that are particularly lucrative, or if they've gone to less prestigious colleges and universities, are, to use your words, really screwed. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

KOTKIN: Sure. I mean, one of the great myths, if you will, of our era - and I understand where it came from - in my parents' generation, the sort of World War II, Depression generation, if you got a college degree you were pretty guaranteed of a decent job. Because there weren't that many people with BAs.

There was a huge growth in the number of jobs that needed these skills and a relative paucity. Now the BA has become a commodity. There are so many of them. And then I think there are also many young people who have been pushed into four-year schools, where they would've been better off with technical training or a two-year degree or going out and getting a job.

And now they're stuck with debt. You know, you think of somebody who not only did they go to college, which was maybe not a first-tier college, and then went to a second or third-tier law school. That person's almost unemployable and yet they're sitting around with enormous amounts of debt. If you got your degree in chemical engineering or in something related to energy, you know, you probably are doing pretty well.

Machinists and welders, though, are probably even more in demand today. And so then what we have is people who've gotten degrees - let's say they've got an art history degree from some state college, and then they wonder why they can't get a job.

MARTIN: But whose fault is this? I mean, it's hard to argue that public policy is pushing people in this direction, given that, you know, support for a public education is not that large. Support in the forms of, you know, scholarship aid and things of that sort is much diminished than what it used to be. And a lot of that aid has been shifted from grants to loans. So whose fault is this, if you don't mind my asking it in that way?

KOTKIN: Well, I think there's a lot of blame to go around. First, I think, you know, there are the schools which - and I teach at a university; I think that a lot of the quality isn't what it was when I went to school. So they're not coming out with the same degree of skills. There are a lot of, kind of, bogus majors that really don't have any value, at least on this planet. So there's blame there.

There's blame in parents who didn't say to their kids, you know, are you sure you really want to do this? Are you sure that this is something that not only do you want to do, but will help you down the road? I think many parents and, you know, I tried to do this with my kids - I have two kids - is to say, you know, why don't you just go out and get a job in the summer?

Or do something that will give you some sort of basic skills. And I tried to do this with my kids. I have two kids. And I think we tended not to push that as much as we should've. So there's the Boomers' problem. And then the young people themselves - I think many of them feel - have felt entitled. They felt I went - I went to school, I got a degree, how come I'm not making a good living?

And so I think there's blame to go around. And as a society we did not focus, I think, as much as we should have on things like manufacturing energy, agriculture, basic industries which would allow the country to generate the kind of wealth it would have, to create the good jobs. I mean that's why what you'll see is you'll see lots of people moving to those parts of the country where those industries are thriving.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Joel Kotkin. He is the author of a recent article in the Daily Beast called, and I'm quoting here, "Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?" Joel, you made a point, or a comment earlier in our conversation I wanted to go back to, which is that you said you're surprised that people aren't more outraged about this.

That younger people aren't more outraged about what they're inheriting here in terms of, you know, just go down the list of degraded infrastructure, high levels of personal debt, high levels of public debt that may very well affect their quality of life, not to mention the economy, overall. I'm curious about why you think that is.

KOTKIN: Well, first of all of course politics is driven by older people, and so their issues tend to have a bit of a prominence. They're much better organized. So that is part of it. And I think a lot of young people, they're going back and living with their parents and they're scaling down their expectations.

And the question really is, to me - and this is where we move more to solutions than why I think the issue that's missing in the presidential election really is tied to this as well - we have to have economic growth. If we do not have three percent, four percent economic growth, the trajectory for the millennials is jut terrible.

Remember, Boomers have enjoyed long periods of three to four percent economic growth, under both - I would call it the Reagan-Clinton era, if you will. The millennials have not enjoyed that and I think unless we focus on that - if the debate in the country was how do we get the economic growth we need, then we can have a discussion about each party, left, right, liberal, conservative.

But somehow that doesn't seem to be the big issue and yet I'm looking at the world that my girls are going to inherit, and without economic growth it's going to be a pretty dismal future.

MARTIN: Yeah, but I have to go back to the question of why it is that young people themselves don't seem to be more agitated about this. And one of the reasons I'm interested in that is that you say that older people are better organized. I think I might argue a bit with that. I mean, this is the Twitter generation. This is the Facebook generation. I mean, and young people, traditionally, have been the ones who have organized. I mean, who was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement? You know, young people. Right?

They were the one sort of out there marching with their bodies and now young people these days have organizational tools that were unheard of there. And one of the things that interested me is when your piece was first posted on Newsweek and The Daily Beast, there was a huge response from a lot of young people who said that they were not part of the generation you say is quote-unquote "screwed." And they had some harsh words for their own folk. They said that millennials today don't work hard enough or that they're just whiners, and I'm very interested in your take on that.

KOTKIN: Well, I think if they begin to recognize that that's a first step towards recovery, is understanding - yeah, I think some of them are whiners and I do see in some of my students that I teach at Chapman University and some of them have become really tough realists. And I think that - what I'm hoping is that this experience will toughen them up and make them recognize that things are not to be taken for granted, for any generation.

You know, nobody owes you a living, and if that comes through, they could be as mad at me as they want, if that's the way they feel. Now, on the organization side, one of the great problems with the Internet - and I own a website called NewGeography, I publish predominantly now on the Web, so I'm obviously pro-Internet.

But I think there is a kind of difference between - and I'm old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement, I was very active in the anti-war movement - between getting your body out on the line and doing something, than, you know, sort of doing a Farmville version of political protest.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask. What is your prescription?

KOTKIN: Biggest thing would be getting economic growth going up to the three to four percent level. I mean, this economy's too big to grow much faster than that. And to really focus ourselves on making the United States, you know, more competitive in more industries. We have some enormous opportunities in technology. We have enormous opportunities in the energy field. And really focusing on the ability of the United States to generate a high income society and a high growth society.

If we do not do that, there's a kind of feedback loop(ph). People don't form households. They don't have children. We have to get economic growth going so that people do feel that they can form families and have children, because that's the only way a society can sustain itself over time.

MARTIN: That was Joel Kotkin. He is the author of a recent piece in Newsweek magazine, The Daily Beast, called "Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?" He was kind enough to join us from member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Joel Kotkin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KOTKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.