Gabriella Nuňez graduated near the top of her high school class. Her resume rivals that of many college graduates. She juggled rigorous courses with part-time work, myriad extracurricular activities and a thousand hours of community service. She held various leadership positions ranging from class president to design editor of her newspaper and she began her college career this summer with over 24 college credits under her belt.
And, she is not alone. The 21st century teenager is increasingly dynamic, and they have to be. Although the Millennial Generation, usually defined as people born between 1981 and 2000, is often criticized for their narcissism and sense of entitlement, new research shows that this generation is actually much more complex than what they’re given credit for.
Yes, today’s young people do seem to “grow up” later, as they put off traditional rites of passage such as marriage, family and home-ownership. And they also have shorter attention spans. Both are, at least partially, due to technology and the Great Recession.
Today’s teens and young adults are more confident and connected than ever before. And they have reason to be. Whereas teens growing up in the late 60s believed that anything was possible after witnessing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, this generation very much believes that they can know all there is to know. This is a generation that does not know a world without computers. Moreover, they don’t remember a time before Google and graphing calculators. So, are they spoiled? Perhaps. Are they a little self-centered? Probably. But, in their world, the President of the United States is only a Tweet away.
And the Great Recession taught them to have less faith in the “grown-ups” and traditional measures of adulthood. They watched their parents endure the real estate melt-down and double-digit unemployment. The Federal Reserve reports that between 2007 and 2010, the median net worth of American families plunged 39 percent.
And the news gets worse. Although this generation is generally more educated than ever before, with more Americans holding college degrees than ever, Millennials are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed. At the height of Great Recession, the unemployment rate among 15 to 24 year-olds was over 20 percent.
And although those numbers have improved, a 2009 Yale University study indicates that students who graduate during a recession earn 10 percent less, even after a decade of work.
According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, inflation-adjusted wages for young high school graduates declined by 11.1 percent between 2000 and 2011, and the real wages of young college graduates declined by 5.4 percent.
But the news does not seem to discourage them. In fact, it seems to motivate some students to work even harder.
“When I got to high school, taking rigorous classes meant sacrificing a social life and sleep for study time to fulfill my various duties and responsibilities,” said Lisabet Esperon, who graduated this June and will begin school at the University of Florida as a sophomore, pursuing a degree in accounting.
Sacrifice is not usually the first word that people associate with the Millennial Generation; however, they are saving more and spending less. Millenials are driving less and, increasingly, living within their means, carrying less credit card debt than their parents did.
Despite facing grim employment prospects, mounting tuition costs and rising student loan interest rates, today’s young people remain optimistic. According to a Pew Research Study, 41 percent of them are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared to only 26 percent of those 30 and older who feel the same.
And they’d have to be optimistic as they graduate high school to find that being top of your class does not guarantee admission to their school of choice at a time when college applications are at an all-time high. Then they graduate from college to enter an incredibly competitive work force.
So, it’s not that Millennial are lazy. They are used to the competition, the stress and the hard work. They just expect to see results for it. And they don’t necessarily measure success in dollars.
Nuňez was often incredibly stressed in high school. “There were tears and hair pulling and late nights with piles of homework” she said. But she doesn’t expect a huge paycheck at the end. “I want a meaningful career. I want to give back. I want to feel fulfilled. Really, I just want to be happy.”
Millenials then, are a paradox. They want more: more free time, more travel, more experiences; they want more out of life than a house with white picket fence and a two-car garage. And, at least for now, they are willing to trade immediate financial success, getting by with less money, to achieve more happiness. How idealistic.
Originally published on WLRN in July 2013