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NowUKnow: The Unbridled Optimism of Millennials
NowUKnow examines millennial minds and issues, informed by research data, expert opinion, and reportage about the professional and personal lives of Generation Y.
Millennials are possibly the most optimistic generation this country has ever known.
Research studies consistently find millennials, ranging in age from 14 to 34, to be inexplicably positive despite facing higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than any other generation in the modern era.
Many of them are still living with mom and dad.
“I find the millennials think it will work out in the end. They don’t listen to the doom and gloom,” says Steve Weisman, senior lecturer of law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University.
This generation represents a major cultural shift, says Weisman. Change is a constant in their world and the pace of it is ever increasing. Many of them cannot yet imagine what the future holds.
“It reminds me of the saying, ‘If you haven’t panicked yet, you really don’t understand the situation,’” says Weisman with a laugh.
Seven in 10 Americans, spanning all generations, say the 80 million or so millennials in this country have it harder than their elders did starting out, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
Millennials are the best-educated generation in American history — one third of those aged 26 and older have a four-year college degree — but they carry astronomical student debt.
At least two-thirds of millennials with a bachelor’s degree graduate with student loans that average $27,000. Student loan debt was nearly half as much two decades ago and only half of those graduating carried any loans at all, according to the Pew survey.
Yet millennials are more confident about their economic prospects than any other generation in existence today, it found.
As joblessness among young adults hits record highs, eight in 10 millennials say they either currently have enough money to lead the lives they want or expect to in the future.
The youngest are doggedly upbeat, according to a recent Gallup poll. Eighty percent of millennials, aged 18 to 29, feel positive about the future and say their standard of living is improving.
“You’d think the millennials would be worried,” says Weisman. “Many of them give up the independence of the college experience and go back to live with their parents. You’d think they’d be asking themselves if it was worth the student debt. What does the future hold?”
“But they’ve grown up in a time where you can go from nothing to a millionaire in a short period of time,” he adds. “The world moves faster.
“They feel they are in the loop — and things are not going well but they could be soon.”
That feeling is mirrored by Bentley research findings that about two-thirds of millennials and non-millennials alike think that millennial employment problems have been caused more by a bad economy than by a lack of preparation for the workforce.
Over the last two decades, people in their 50s and 60s have tended to be less upbeat about the chances of their children living as well as they do, according to data from the General Social Survey, a long-running study funded by the National Science Foundation.
Fifty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 thought young people today were unlikely to have a better life than their parents, compared with 42 percent of those ages 18 to 34, a recent Gallup poll found. But nearly 70 percent of millennials in a 2014 Wells Fargo survey say their standard of living before retirement will be better than their parents.
The millennials — also called the Optimistic Generation — state in multiple surveys that they will do a lot better than their parents and others think. They talk about innovation. A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation shows that 54 percent of them either want to start their own company or already have. Millennials are responsible for nearly 160,000 start-ups a month, according to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“It turns out living at home is a good place to go when you can’t find a job but want to launch a company,” says Weisman.
Millennials believe in their own promise and that of America: nearly half of them say the country’s greatest years are ahead of it, according to the Pew survey. No other generation came close to expressing the same confidence in the United States: not Generation X (age 35 to 49), the baby boomers (age 50 to 68), or the Silent Generation (age 69 to 86).
Still why are the millennials so indefatigably sure of themselves against the odds?
Maybe it stems from millennials having been raised in a time of nurturing parental norms. Or confidence that has been hard-wired into their DNA. Or perhaps they feel empowered by placing themselves at the center of their own social networks, as a spokesman from the Pew Research Center and others have pondered.
The only certainty is that they believe in the future.
“On the one hand, I am a great admirer of millennial optimism because pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Weisman. “Now I want them to use that optimism and take the necessary steps toward success.”
Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.