There’s a lot of hoopla in the media about how Millennials are the best-educated generation in history, blah, blah, blah. But according to a Pew survey, that’s a distortion of reality. In fact, two-thirds of Millennials between ages 25 and 32 don’t have a bachelor's degree. The education gap among this generation is higher than for any other in history in terms of how those with a college degree will fare compared to those without. Reflecting a trend that has been gaining momentum in the rest of America, Millennials are rapidly getting sorted into winners and losers. Most of them are losing. That’s going to cost this generation a lot —and the rest of society, too.
According to Pew, young college graduates are ahead of their less-educated peers on just about every measure of economic well-being and how they are faring in the course of their careers. Their parents and grandparents’ generations did not take as big of a hit by not going to college, but for Millennials, the blow is severe. Without serious intervention, its effects will be permanent.
Young college grads working full-time are earning an eye-popping $17,500 more per year than those with only a high school diploma. To put this in perspective, in 1979 when the first Baby Boomers were the same age that Millennials are today, a high school graduate could earn around three-quarters (77 percent) of what his or her college-educated peer took in. But Millennials with only a high school diploma earn only 62 percent of what the college grads earn.
According to Pew, young people with a college degree are also more likely to have full-time jobs, much more likely to have a job of any kind, and more likely to believe that their job will lead to a fulfilling career. But forty-two percent of those with a high school diploma or less see their work as “just a job to get by.” In stark contrast, only 14 percent of college grads have such a negative assessment of their jobs.
Granted, college is expensive. But nine out of 10 Millennials say it’s worth it — even those who have had to borrow to foot the bill. They seem to have absorbed the fact that in a precarious economy, a college diploma is the bare minimum for security and stability.
Why are those with less education doing so badly? The Great Recession is part of the answer. There has also been a trend in which jobs, when they return after a financial crisis, are worse than those that were lost. After the recession of the 80s, for example, unionized labor never again found jobs as good as the ones they'd had before the downturn. The same things has happened this time, only even more dramatically. The jobs that are returning are often part-time, underpaid, lacking in benefits and short on opportunities to advance. It’s great to embark on a career as an engineer at Apple, not so great to work in an Apple retail store, where pay is low and the hope for a career is minimal. The Great Recession amplified a trend of McJobs that had been gaining strength for decades, stoked by the decline in unions, deregulation, outsourcing, and poor corporate governance that have tilted the balance of power away from employees to such a degree that many young people now expect exploitation and poor conditions on the job simply as a matter of course, with no experience of how things could be any different.
All this is not to say that having a college degree gives you a free pass: This generation of college-educated adults is doing slightly worse on certain measures, like the percentage without jobs, than Gen Xers, Baby Boomers or members of the silent generation when they were in their mid-20s and early 30s. But today’s young people who don’t go to college are doing much worse than those in similar situations in the generations that came before.
Poverty is one of the biggest threats to Millenials without college degrees. Nearly a quarter (22 percent) of young people ages 25 to 32 without a college degree live in poverty today, whereas only 6 percent of the college-educated fall into this camp. When Baby Boomers were the same age as today’s Millenials, only 7 percent of those with only a high school diploma were living in poverty.
It’s true that more Millennials than past generations have college degrees, and it’s also true that the value of those diplomas has increased. Given those facts you might think might that the Millennial generation should be earning more than earlier generations of young adults. You would be wrong — and that’s because it’s more costly not to have a college education than ever before. So the education have-nots are pulling the average of the whole generation down. The typical high school graduate’s earnings dropped by more than $3,000, from $31,384 in 1965 to $28,000 in 2013.
There are also more Millennials who don’t even have a high school diploma than previous generations: Some have taken to calling Millennials “Generation Dropout.” A 2013 article in the Atlantic Monthly noted that compared to other countries, the newest wave of employees is actually less educated than their parents because of the lower number completing high school. A recent program on NPR called the 25- to 32-year-old cohort without college degrees and decent jobs the “Silent Majority.”
In 1965, young college graduates earned $7,499 more than those with a high school diploma. But the earnings gap by educational attainment has steadily widened since then, and today it has more than doubled to $17,500 among Millennials ages 25 to 32.
All of this is alarming because it means that less-educated workers are going to have a really hard time. Compared to the Silent Generation, those with high school or less are three times more likely to be jobless.
When you look at the length of time the typical job seeker spends looking for work, less educated Millennials are again faring poorly. In 2013 the average unemployed college-educated Millennial had been looking for work for 27 weeks—more than double the time it took an unemployed college-educated 25- to 32-year-old in 1979 to find a job (12 weeks). And again, today’s young high school graduates do worse on this measure compared to the college-educated or their peers in earlier generations. Millennial high school graduates spend, on average, four weeks longer looking for work than college graduates (31 weeks vs. 27 weeks).
These young people are ending up in dire straits — stuck in debt, unable to set up their own households, and having to put off starting families (recent research shows that many women who face economic hard times in their 20s will never end up having kids). It’s not that they don’t want to grow up, it’s that they don’t have access to the things that make independence possible, like a good education, a good job, a strong social safety net, affordable childcare, and so on.
How much is this going to cost America as a nation? It’s too early to say for sure, but Millennial underemployment, which is directly linked to undereducation, is already costing $25 billion a year, largely because of the lost tax revenue. But what about the other costs? The increased rates of alcoholism and substance abuse? The broken relationships? The depression? The long list of physical ailments that go along with the stress of not being able to gain and keep a financial foothold?
Once upon a time, more forward-thinking politicians and politicos recognized that young people who have the bad luck to try to launch into adulthood in the wake of an economic crisis not of their own making need real help. They need jobs programs, training and decent work conditions that could improve not only their individual lives but the health of the whole society and economy. We have the blueprint of how to do this from the New Deal. It's going to cost everyone if America leaves these young people to suffer this cruel fate.