Adulting While Poor

Adulting While Poor

Forget the avocado toast. Popular narratives about downwardly mobile millennials and their spending habits overlook a key factor in why young people have been hit so hard by today’s housing crisis: class.

(Tina Leggio / Flickr)

Why can’t millennials afford their own homes? Reading much of the popular press, one is led to believe it’s their unrealistic expectations, indulgent spending, and general allergy to adulthood that have trapped them in a renter’s purgatory. Nebraska senator Ben Sasse wrote a whole book, The Vanishing American Adult, in which he argued that young people today are stuck in a Peter Pan–like state of carefree childhood, spending their time playing video games, buying stuff, and snapping selfies—even posting ironic memes about “adulting”—rather than seeking meaning in career, family, and a stable home.

It is true that millennials have been slower to reach various milestones on the way to an all-American adulthood—including buying a home—than prior generations at the same point in their lives. For example, Americans ages eighteen to thirty-four are now more likely to be living with their parents than in any other housing arrangement, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center (which defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996). That has never been the case before, according to census data going back to 1880.

A more rigorous explanation for their failure to launch is that the Great Recession stunted millennials’ economic lives at a critical age. As a result, they’re still struggling to obtain gainful employment in a more demanding labor market, or find affordable housing in a contracted mortgage market. In other words, it’s not their lousy values—it’s their lousy economic prospects.

But this line of argument, too, misses something crucial. Its focus on middle-class, if downwardly mobile, millennials obscures just how diverse a generation millennials are. Not all of them are into Snapchat and kombucha juice, that’s for sure, but what’s less appreciated is that not even a majority of them are college-educated. Barely four out of ten Americans between ages twenty-five and thirty-four—members of what will be the most academically credentialed generation ever—have a bachelor’s degree. Thanks in part to the country’s widening income gap, the picture of “how millennials are doing” is dramatically different depending on which segment of the population you happen to be looking at. And to an overlooked degree, what determines whether, when, and how members of this generation attain the traditional markers of adulthood—a house and career, marriage and kids—is one factor: class.

To take just one example: As avidly as the media talks about how college grads nowadays are boomeranging back to mooch off mom and dad, the fact is that this trend is largely driven by those who didn’t go to college—working-class millennials. (Here I define class by income and education, with the “working class” making less than the median household and not possessing a four-year degree.) Young Americans with a bachelor’s degree are half as likely to live with their parents as those with just a high school degree. In fact, they live with a spouse or other partner at about the same rate as their counterparts did in that dissolute decade, the 1940s.

By this and other measures of independence, well-educated millennials aren’t doing shabbily compared to past generations. It’s the other half who are unable to achieve, as sociologist Jennifer Silva puts it, a world of “stable endings.” Consider homeownership. Fewer young adults own homes today than has been the case in at least three decades. This has prompted plenty of speculation about whether a generation weaned on the sharing economy is rebelling against the white-picket-fence American dream, in much the way they killed dinner parties. The idea that young people today have a sudden hankering for life on the kibbutz is probably overblown: Americans of all generations are more likely to be renting today than they were a decade ago, and this shift has been just as pronounced among the country’s middle-aged as it has been among those under thirty-five. But the more important point is that, now as before, those lacking college degrees are a lot likelier to be renting. There are signs, too, that this class divide may widen further in the years to come. For one thing, the homes that lower-income buyers can afford are in much scarcer supply today than costlier dwellings in virtually all the metro areas tracked by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, and inflation-adjusted prices in this segment of the market have skyrocketed over the last two decades.

Millennial households have saved up substantially less than Generation X did at this point in their lives, partly because the share of households with student debt has nearly doubled since 1995. That said, some millennials are doing a good deal better than others. While the rich have gotten richer, an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the bottom half of young adults have seen steep drops in their net worth over the last three decades—moving them, on average, from slightly in the black to deeply in the red. Without sufficient savings, these millennials can’t afford the down payment on a home or even a security deposit on an apartment. This may be part of the reason that working-class young adults are less likely to change residences than their better-educated peers—a troubling fact in itself, given that the ability of less well-off Americans to move to opportunity has long tamped down inequality in this country.

It needs to be stressed how much race matters along with class in all these areas of inequality. Unlike all other racial groups, black households have seen virtually no gains in homeownership over the past three decades, and continue to rent at twice the rate of their white peers. African American and Hispanic millennials are more likely to live in their parents’ homes than whites are. Today, more young people are people of color than in the past, and so there are sometimes cultural as well as economic reasons that they are opting to live at home.* Generally speaking, though, the more well off young people are in terms of their education or income (characteristics all too closely correlated with race), the more likely they are to be living on their own, in a home they own.

Why do working-class millennials have such a hard time striking out on their own? One major reason is their inability to find decent-paying, long-term employment. While the economic recovery has brought back jobs, those without bachelor’s degrees are out of the running for most of the good ones. The sorts of positions now available to them are a great deal less likely to pay well and provide benefits than was the case in past decades. Meanwhile, as Arne Kalleberg and other scholars have described, workers today live more precarious lives. Job insecurity has grown. Positions with little stability or predictability—those as temps, freelancers, and independent contractors, for example—have become more widespread. While the scale of this phenomenon depends on how exactly one defines “precarious” or “contingent” work, several studies have shown that lower-paid and less educated workers are likelier to be stuck in the most onerous arrangements, such as on-call work. For working-class young Americans, then, the future looks increasingly like today’s Japan or Spain. There, the loosening of labor laws, the protection of older workers at the expense of younger ones, and the erosion of norms favoring secure employment have trapped young people in dead-end contract jobs, stymieing their progress toward life goals.

It’s worth keeping in mind that a person’s decision to stay or move tends to be based on long-term considerations—whether that person feels confident enough to take on a lease or mortgage. That confidence comes from not just having a job, but a stable job with a decent wage. Such long-term considerations may explain why millennials’ likelihood of living at home has remained stubbornly high even as unemployment has fallen markedly. It’s a reminder that the unemployment rate alone can be deceptive, not just because wage growth has failed to keep up but also because of the large number of workers who have dropped out of the labor force altogether over the last two decades. Again, the working class is more likely to fall into this category.

It’s not so hard to understand why young people choose to live at home when they work lousy jobs or have abandoned even trying to find decent work. But there is another, related reason that the life trajectories of working-class millennials veer so sharply away from those of their better-off peers: the United States’ heavy reliance on a “private safety net”—above all, parents’ pursestrings—to pull its young people up into independent adulthood. An analysis by the University of Arizona’s Patrick Wightman found that four out of ten Americans in their early twenties get help from their parents to pay living expenses—on average, about $250 a month. And that support has grown over the years. A University of Michigan study found that many more Americans in their twenties received financial help from their parents in 2011 than was the case for people of the same age three decades earlier, largely because a greater number are going to college, don’t have full-time jobs, and aren’t yet married. The more educated the parents, the more assistance their adult children received. This is not surprising, given the country’s huge inequalities in family wealth, which track closely with education. For example, families where the household head has a bachelor’s degree have more than five times the net worth of less educated households. (This wealth gap between the typical white family and typical African American and Hispanic families, of course, is even starker: ten and eight times, respectively.) The monthly rent checks from well-off moms and dads are just one marker of the ways that financial advantage—and disadvantage—trickle down from generation to generation.

When working-class millennials have to turn to working-class parents for help, the problem isn’t just that the kids have to make do with fewer resources. It’s also that working-class parents (who disproportionately help out their own parents as well) have to take on more financial risk, worsening the inequalities that already exist between households. For my book on long-term unemployment, I examined how these growing obligations to adult children could weigh on parents in the United States and Canada already coping with job loss. I interviewed a forty-four-year-old worker in Windsor, Ontario, who had worked for a decade at a car-parts plant right across the river from Detroit. After the plant shut down, this woman and her husband moved into a smaller house to trim their mortgage payments. She told me they were struggling to pay their bills, which included a large dental bill (“The higher the stress level goes, the more I’m grinding my teeth”). She had maxed out her credit cards and recently had her phone cut off. Her husband, who installed home alarm systems, couldn’t get enough hours at work to make up for the loss of her income. Their twenty-two-year-old daughter, who worked at Tim Hortons, was also living with them, chipping in a small amount toward rent.

The woman remembered how when she was young and raising her two daughters, she’d been able to turn to her father, an autoworker at Ford, whenever she needed help. She had done the same for her kids in the past—a twenty-dollar bill here, a few bags of groceries there. But now, she said, “I can’t be there for them like I used to be.” Her other daughter, the mother of a ten-month-old, asked for money recently, and she had to refuse. “That is hard, to say no to my grandkids,” she said. “Because they’re just as defenseless as mine were when my dad was there doing it for me.”

The United States’ deep-rooted inequality of opportunity doesn’t just harm working-class kids. In a different way, it also makes independent adulthood trickier to attain for children from affluent backgrounds. The dramatic rise in income disparities has made it all the more crucial where exactly one winds up in this high-stakes pecking order. It has also raised the bar that young people need to reach in their consumption of status goods—everything from consumer electronics to academic credentials—if they are to impress others and get ahead. Yet, for middle-class as well as working-class Americans, achieving the same standard of living as their parents—the people who taught them, in many cases, what being an “adult” actually meant—has become less common, according to research by the economist Raj Chetty and others. When small differences in skill (or luck) pay off so handsomely, and upward mobility is a less certain prospect, even affluent parents become anxious about their children’s ability to compete. No wonder, then, that “helicopter parents” are so common among the privileged.

When it comes to reconciling our visions of adulthood with millennial reality, part of the problem is cultural. It’s useful to remember that the very notion of any prolonged transition from childhood to adulthood originated as a middle-class ideal, one which the American working class, sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin notes, only latched onto in large numbers well into the twentieth century, when expanded schooling and rising wages allowed for it. Pundits’ exhortations to millennials to stop being so lazy, dependent, and spineless are tinged by class, whether they acknowledge it or not.

This reflects a broader cultural problem as well: American culture idealizes whatever the children of the well-to-do excel in. For example, the belief that a college degree is the ultimate sign of making it—so strong that people well into retirement feel compelled to seek out diplomas—also means that those who fail to realize that dream are seen as losers. Lower-income kids are told to play the “college for all” game in order to become upstanding adults, but aren’t given the resources to compete. Meanwhile, alternative career pathways like vocational training and apprenticeships have long been neglected in this country. For many young Americans, high school is often the real endpoint, and the real entryway into adulthood. But in a college-centric culture, it is not celebrated as such.

It would be a good start to recognize that the markers of adulthood so many pundits cling to today—including homeownership and a college degree—are not intrinsic signs of independence, well-being, or fulfillment. But when it comes to creating conditions of stability that will allow people of all generations, races, and classes to thrive, the solution will likely take more than just a cultural shift. It will take old-fashioned public policy.

In countries that invest more in social safety nets, the likelihood that millennials can cross over into adulthood in a meaningful way doesn’t depend so mightily on who their parents are. The range of public support available in countries like Denmark and Sweden—including “housing subsidies, generous education benefits, unemployment compensation (even for people who have not been in the labor force), universal medical care, training schemes and apprenticeships, and vast tracts of public and rental housing”—keeps young people from having to rely as extensively on parents, writes sociologist Katherine Newman in her book The Accordion Family. (Disclosure: I’ve co-authored a book with Newman.) By contrast, countries like Italy and Japan leave younger workers to confront a competitive global economy largely on their own, much like in the United States. Not surprisingly, millennials in those countries face low rates of full-time employment and shockingly slim prospects of leaving the nest (the average Italian does not leave home until the age of thirty). This leaves them arguably worse off than their American counterparts. And there, complaints also abound about not-so-tenderfoots who live in their parents’ basements and do nothing except play video games and occasionally clear out the fridge.

Ultimately, any successful effort to mend this generational divide must recognize that what really sets millennials apart is not that they are any more irresponsible or insufferable than other generations as a whole (as much as some, individually, are). It’s not just that they’ve been suckerpunched by a terrible economy (as much as many of them have been). What distinguishes millennials is how thoroughly their generation has been shaped by America’s stark and growing class inequality. Because of it, working-class millennials face a significantly steeper slog on the way to homeownership and other conventional milestones of adulthood. If their coming-of-age story is to have a happy ending, this lost half of a generation will need something beyond calls for more temperance and less avocado toast. They will need an economy that works for them—and a culture that really cares whether they sink or swim.


Victor Tan Chen is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy (University of California Press, 2015) and the founding editor of In The Fray magazine.

* That said, the fact that Asian Americans are as likely as whites to move out presents a wrinkle for any theory about more family-centric values taking root.

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