Robert J. Samuelson: Millennial parent trap — The happiness of our children seems imperiled

By Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post

Published: Mon, Aug. 4, 2014, 8:35 p.m. MDT

 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.

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.


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.

1. Random
Redlands, CA,
Aug. 4, 2014

Maybe, hopefully, but not realistically, colleges will realize that there is a breaking point, and at what cost. Perhaps we will, as a nation, remember that we need those to fix roads, plumb a line, know how a refrigerator works and how to fix it, and treat the trades as we treat degrees.

2. Nate
Pleasant Grove, UT,
Aug. 5, 2014

One hopes that, as a result of their experience, our young people will become more discerning voters.

3. Mountanman
Hayden, ID,
Aug. 5, 2014

But, but Obama and the Democrat tell us the economy and the job market are great and getting better each day! But hey, who are you going to believe, Obama or your own lying eyes?

4. John Charity Spring
Back Home in Davis County, UT,
Aug. 5, 2014

Mountanman is absolutely correct. The irrefutable fact is that the current left-wing administration has actively depressed the economy, to the detriment of an entire generation.

The left-wing has been enormously successful in convincing young people that, simply because they exist, they are entitled to have a high standard of living. Indeed, that generation believes they are entitled right now to the same standard of living that it took prior generations decades of hard work to achieve.

The creation of discontent is a deliberate ploy by the left-wing which is designed to create dependence on government, with the subsequent votes. Unfortunately, this ploy has succeeded with far too many.

5. Diligent Dave
Logan, UT,
Aug. 5, 2014

I know Mr Samuelson is aware of the birth dearth epidemic (sub-replacement birth rates in the U.S., and around most of the world now), since he's written an article or more on that subject.

When I went to college, from the mid to latter 1970's, males far outnumbered female college students overall. Then, gradually, over time, the ratio reversed, so that now, overall, women far outnumber men in both attending and graduating college. As a guy with six sisters, and seven daughters, I think that's fantastic for females. However, what may be good for a gender, and an individual, may, overall, become bad for all.

Women who are in college are less likely to have children. And they often delay marriage and/or child bearing until after they've finished. But, that is true of men, too. Individually, college makes us smart; collectively? Not so much.

Having a good education, good thinking and other skills can help us get a job. But, since birthrates have plummeted, where do we expect to find customers? The economy is bust, because of a baby bust. We don't have enough babies, cause we're in school too long.