Millennials Are 'Generation Screwed,' Futurist Argues

Correction appended

The millennial generation suffers from a trifecta of problems -- a poor job market, public debt and personal debt -- that are making their lives worse than previous generations, futurist Joel Kotkin argues.

"They've racked up that debt and they can't pay it because they can't get a job. That's a pretty good definition of getting screwed," Joel Kotkin said in an interview on NPR's "Tell Me More."

Kotkin is distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, Orange, Calif. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.

No generation has suffered more from the Great Recession than millennials, typically defined as those born after 1980, Kotkin wrote in a July 15 Newsweek article. Between 2005 and 2010, median net worth fell 37 percent for those under 35 but only 13 percent for those over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Kotkin also notes a Pew Research Center study showing that the median net worth of a baby boomer (65 and older) household is $170,494, 42 percent higher than it was in 1984, but the median net worth of a millennial household has declined 68 percent to $3,662.

Since millennials have less work experience than older generations, they have the highest unemployment rate, making wealth accumulation and debt repayment difficult.

At the same time, older generations are saddling millennials with a tremendous amount of public debt. This week, the national debt alone is expected to surpass $16 trillion. Public debt from programs such as Social Security and Medicare at the national level and public employee pensions at the state and local level transfer wealth from the young to the old.

In addition to the public debt that will limit their government's abilities to deal with future crises, millennials are accumulating large amounts of personal debt, mostly in the form of student loans and credit card debt. Student loans now average $27,000 and the average college student has $12,700 in credit card debt, Kotkin notes.

Additionally, while millennials are often encouraged to go to college, there are not enough jobs that require a college degree. Many college graduates of the millennial generation, therefore, end up working in a job that does not require a college degree. They have college loan debt, but they do not have a college graduate salary to help them pay off that debt. About 16 percent of bartenders and parking attendants have a college degree, Kotkin pointed out.

These difficulties are already impacting the next generation as millennials delay marriage and having children. Kotkin notes that the birthrate is down 11 percent and the marriage rate has declined 6.8 percent.

Kotkin is particularly critical of the Baby Boomer generation for creating much of the millennials' difficulties.

The "mountain of boomer- and senior-incurred debt," Kotkin wrote, "constitutes a toxic legacy handed over to offspring who will have to pay it off in at least three ways: through higher taxes, less infrastructure and social spending, and, fatefully, the prospect of painfully slow growth for the foreseeable future."

Kotkin also criticizes the "huge public-employee pensions now driving many states and cities" toward bankruptcy as "an extreme case of intergenerational transfer from young to old."

"It's a thoroughly rigged boomer game," Kotkin said, "providing guaranteed generous benefits to older public workers while handing the financial upper echelon a 'Wall Street boondoggle' (to quote analyst Walter Russell Mead)."

In his NPR interview, Kotkin expressed surprise that millennials are not more outraged at what is happening to them.

"What I'm hoping," Kotkin added, "is that this experience will toughen them up, and make them recognize that things are not to be taken for granted for any generation. You know, nobody owes you a living."

Correction: Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012:

A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the futurist, Joel Kotkin.

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