WASHINGTON — You could hear the tension in his voice. His 20-something daughter was living at home. She had a graduate degree from a good university that, in times past, would have led to a solid job. But she had no job and no prospect of one. He worried and wondered how long this would last.
He's got plenty of company.
We are, I think, a new silent minority: parents of millennials, those born roughly from 1980 to the mid-1990s. Much has been written about their problems; little has been written about ours. I have three 20-somethings, and although all are now gainfully occupied in jobs or school, I am awash in anxiety about their future. Will jobs be there? Will they be stable? Will they pay enough? Will they encourage our children to start families of their own?
Everywhere I go, I meet parents — the man quoted above is typical — with similar doubts. Some of this is normal parental worry, but much is the product of this economic cycle, whose destructive effects have fallen disproportionately on the young. As parents, our sense of self-worth depends heavily on the success and happiness of our children. These seem increasingly imperiled.
I confess that the reporter in me wants to dismiss all this as claptrap: another case of media and political hype that, with a little time and perspective, will self-destruct of its own simplicities. Maybe that will happen; I hope so. I also admit that sweeping generalizations about generations normally offend me. The differences among individuals — in economic class, geography, religion, schooling and much more — usually dwarf any imprint left by collective experiences and common beliefs.
I searched for evidence to debunk the conventional wisdom. I did find a thoughtful speech by Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, that I suspected would assuage my fears. Unfortunately, it didn't. Reviewing various statistics, Furman delivers a somber assessment of how poorly many of the young — not everyone, to be sure — have fared.
The job market inflicted the worst damage. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, unemployment peaked at 13.9 percent in 2010 and was 9.1 percent in June (Furman's speech predated July's jobs report). This was much higher than the 7.2 percent average of the 2001-07 economic expansion.
More discouraging is the U-6 measure, which includes the officially unemployed, part-timers who would like more hours, discouraged workers and others "marginally" attached to the labor force. In June, the U-6 for this age group was 16.7 percent, down from a peak of 21.8 percent but up from the 12 percent 2001-07 average. (Even in good times, job turnover among the young — and hence their unemployment — exceeds the average.)
Compounding poor job prospects are high debts. In early 2014, student debt totaled $1.1 trillion and had more than doubled since 2005; about 11 percent "has been categorized as seriously delinquent," said Furman. With high debts and fewer jobs, more young people have retreated to their parents. In 2013, nearly one-third of 18- to 34-year-olds were living with parents, up from about a quarter in 2005.
I would qualify Furman's analysis in one important respect: A Pew study notes that millennials "are the most racially diverse generation in American history, a trend driven" largely by Hispanic and Asian immigration. Some "generational" trends also reflect the differences of economic class and ethnic background.
Still, none of this can please parents, who desire to see their children independent. Instead, many millennials aren't self-supporting and are postponing conventional life decisions: getting married, having children, buying a house. It may make sense to return home — saving rent they don't have or building a small nest egg — and some parents may enjoy having their children around again. But neither can be happy that these decisions are largely involuntary.
What's emerged is a large class of people — mainly parents of millennials — who increasingly judge the economy not by how well they're doing (because many are doing OK) but by how well their kids are doing. The unwritten social contract of their era presumed that the economy would be strong enough so that when children reached a certain age, they could be "launched" into the adult world and would not crash. It's this contract that's now broken down. Many launchings are aborted.
Perhaps setbacks are temporary. The children of the Great Depression, who might have expected continuous want and insecurity, generally enjoyed prosperous lives. The July jobs report (with 209,000 added payroll jobs) suggests an improving economy. Also, the retirement of baby boom workers will open up many job opportunities even if total employment grows slowly. Surveys show that the young remain confident. Maybe millennials' fortunes will soon reverse. If so, no one will be happier than their parents.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.