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OPINION: Heralded Millennials aren't a cohesive cohort

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.


By many accounts, Millennials have the potential to be the greatest generation since World World II. The cohort born after 1980 has been called confident, connected, open to change, optimistic, organized, engaged, team-oriented, sophisticatedly intelligent and technologically savvy. And that's just quoting the headlines of the past month.

You'd think our societal savior has arrived. Highly valued by their peers, given tons of quality time by their parents, and the beneficiaries of protections such as car seats, bike helmets and Space Age medical advances, Millennials are arguably the most cared after group of Americans in history.

This is the bright side, which has been trumpeted by recent research and media attention. But it is only one part of Planet Millennia. The other is one of increasing gaps and divergent destinies.

Whether we look at assets or income, Millennials from rich families and those from poor ones have come of age on opposite sides of a great divide.

As Millennials were being born and growing up, the gap between the highest- and lowest-income families increased by nearly two-thirds. Not only is the gap larger than before, it is incredibly difficult to close. Looking at trends between 1984 and 2004, the Economic Mobility Project found that seven out of 10 individuals who were in the lowest income group in 1984 were still in that group 20 years later.

And the gap between rich and poor Millennials doesn't just mean an income difference on paper. It means living different lives, and staying in them.

In an age of growing gaps, rich and poor Millennials aren't likely to interact. They grow up in different neighborhoods, go to different schools and have different opportunities. As kids, one group has access to better health care, more enrichment activities and more financial stability. The other group, simply put, does not.

These kinds of differences affect who gets into college and can afford to go, who graduates, and how much debt they're in when they finish. These differences - begun long ago in childhood - are also affecting how well Millennial adults can weather the current recession.

A recent Pew Research study found that Millennials are more likely than other age groups to have suffered a job loss in the past few months or to lack health insurance. The study also found that more than one out of three working-age Millennials are relying on financial support from their families.

The big question is what happens to Millennials - particularly those who grew up on the wrong side of the income gap - whose families are unable to offer financial support?

Harvard's Center for the Study of Politics found that three out of five Millennials are worried about paying their bills, and 45 percent say their personal finances are in bad shape.

Under these conditions, those who can rely on Mom and Dad to help ease the current pain will likely fare better than those who can't. They may not gain any ground in the near future, but they likely won't lose any either.

Not so for those young adults from the poorest families. They were already facing large odds in moving up the mobility ladder, and the recession has made those odds a lot worse. Not only may they not be able to climb - they may fall back a few rungs.

So while the hope we place in Millennials provides some much needed optimism, we have to keep it in check. We need this generation - every member of it - to reach its full potential. But its members aren't there yet. Addressing the huge gaps in economic opportunity and stability that have affected Millennials since birth is an essential place to begin to change that.


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