CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
A few months ago, THE INDICATOR put out a call to young adults on Instagram asking if they would share with us their experiences of navigating the economy. That's how I ended up speaking on the phone with Jess Dupree (ph) from Houston, Texas, who squeezed in the call in typical youthful fashion, in the middle of running some errands on a workday.
JESS DUPREE: I'm actually parked outside of a floral wholesale shop getting some things for an event this weekend.
DUPREE: It's been crazy.
SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
When the Great Recession ended in 2009, Jess was 23 years old. She was working lots of odd jobs and was getting paid close to the minimum wage.
GARCIA: Yeah. And throughout a lot of her 20s, like a lot of us, Jess would end up working her way into better jobs. But for a while, she stayed living at home with her parents and tried to save money because she was stressed about the nearly $50,000 in student debt that she needed to pay down.
DUPREE: Anytime I got a bonus or anything extra, even if it didn't go towards that, I always felt like it should. You know, I didn't even - almost didn't even feel like I could even begin to date with all of that student loan debt.
HERSHIPS: But when she was 29, she started dating James (ph), who would later become her husband. And she actually worried that he might break up with her when she told him about all her debt. But he didn't. He was supportive. Instead, the couple started plotting out their joint expenses on a spreadsheet. I think I love them. For a while, a lot of the biggest entries were Jess' student loan payments.
DUPREE: Probably why we haven't even really - we just recently started talking about buying a home, why we were like, we've got to at least get this halfway whittled down before we even start trying to have kids. You know, for a long time, I felt really responsible for our kind of delay in our adult lives.
GARCIA: Jess is not alone. Compared to earlier generations, young adults now - and, yes, fine. I hate the word, but we'll call them millennials. Millennials are living at home longer. They're getting married later. They're having children later. And they're putting off buying houses. And this has led some people from earlier generations to label millennials as lazy or coddled or afraid of becoming adults, to make commitments and put down roots. But that is a bum rap.
I'm Cardiff Garcia.
HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships. Today on THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY, we go millennial myth-busting. Cardiff, do you feel strongly about this?
GARCIA: Hell yes. Got a lot of love for the youngs.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
GARCIA: To understand the economic experiences of young adults, especially after the Great Recession 10 years ago, there was one economist I knew we had to call.
GRAY KIMBROUGH: I'm Gray Kimbrough, and I'm an economist at American University.
HERSHIPS: Gray has been referred to by The Washington Post as a serial millennial myth-debunker. He says that the reputation millennials have gotten as lazy or afraid of adulthood is nonsense. And there is data to back it up. The data that we're using in this episode applies to millennials in the United States. We can't speak for foreign millennials.
GARCIA: Yeah, not yet, at least. By the way, millennials are young adults who are now between the ages of roughly 22 to 38. And the place we're going to start, the place we have to start, is with the economy. The data show that the economy really has been worse for millennials than it has been for people in prior generations when they were young adults.
HERSHIPS: Gray looked at the average amount that the U.S. economy has grown in the 10 years after each member of a generation reached the age of 18. He did this analysis for the millennial generation, Gen X - that's me and Cardiff - and the baby boomers, like our parents.
GARCIA: Yeah, and here's what he found. In the 10 years after millennials reached the age of 18, the economy has grown by an average of about 18%. For both Gen X and the boomers, it grew by about twice that much when members of those generations turned 18. That is a huge difference, and it's the first thing to keep in mind because this affects all the other trends we're going to describe.
HERSHIPS: One trend, for example, is that millennials do live at home for longer than earlier generations did. Young adults, in general, had steadily been moving out of their parents' houses at later and later ages starting in the '60s and '70s, but that delay started increasing by a lot around the year 2000 when the first millennials were around 18 or 19 years old. And Gray says that trend has continued.
KIMBROUGH: Young women and men in their 20s are more likely to live with their parents now than any time since World War II.
GARCIA: And you can see a similar trend when it comes to young adults living in their own homes as opposed to renting. Starting in the middle of the last decade, after the U.S. housing market collapsed and dragged the rest of the economy down with it, there was a huge decline in the share of people in their 20s who lived in a home that was owned rather than a home that they were renting.
And this is where some people, like the Gen Xers and the boomers, might be tempted to say, aha, this is because millennials are afraid of marriage and commitment and settling down - adulthood. But, nah, sorry Gen Xers. You'd be wrong to think that.
HERSHIPS: Gray says, actually, the most likely reason that young adults have been living at home longer and putting off buying houses is the economy, not because they're irresponsible or afraid of entering adulthood. The age when young adults get married is getting higher, but that has been a steady trend since the 1960s. It has not accelerated. It's not some new thing that started with millennials.
GARCIA: And that's why Gray says it's reasonable to think that the tough economy, the tough labor market for millennials has played a role.
KIMBROUGH: We have massive changes in housing markets that might be impacting younger people the most. We have - we seem to be having changes in labor markets that are impacting younger people the most.
HERSHIPS: Plus, a much higher share of millennials go to college and graduate than people from earlier generations. And so the amount of college debt has climbed a lot since the middle of the last decade, which also makes it harder for young adults to afford houses.
GARCIA: So take all these things in combination and you can see that the reason young adults have put off these milestones, like buying houses and having kids, does not match the stereotype of the lazy and self-absorbed millennial.
HERSHIPS: And if you want more proof, Gray is not finished busting millennial myths. There's one that really annoys him. It's the myth that says millennials are disloyal to their employers, hopping from job to job, unable to stay put in one place. But this is also nonsense. Gray says young adults now switch jobs at much lower rates than Gen Xers and baby boomers did when they were young.
KIMBROUGH: Job-switching drops quite a bit around 2000, 2001, stays kind of at that level for a while, and then they were hit again by the Great Recession. And they've been kind of steadily climbing back, but not to the levels that they were before 2000.
GARCIA: So, yeah, a lot of these trends are due to the economy. But we should note there is an optimistic spin that you can put on the economic experiences of millennials. Remember Jess Dupree, the millennial who spent her 20s paying off her debt, afraid that she couldn't afford to go on dates? Her story has a happy ending. She just got a new job in Houston, Texas, working for Peroni (ph), the beer company, that pays a lot more than her last job. But she says that her struggles to get there ended up making her more cautious and responsible in her approach to making big-ticket purchases, like a house.
DUPREE: When we're looking at buying a house, like, I understand if we buy it farther off in the city, there, it'll be less money. And they're saying if we put more down, like, that's going to be better for the long term. So I'm looking at all those things. Everything that we've done, you know, in our married life, starting with our wedding, was very affordable. There was no debt.
HERSHIPS: And it's quite possible the economy has had the same effect on other young adults. They have more college debt but less mortgage debt. And as we've explained on THE INDICATOR before, big, traumatic economic events, like the Great Recession, often lead people who experience them to be more careful about how they spend their money.
GARCIA: So think about it all this way. And this is purely speculative, but with more college degrees than prior generations, young adults now have set themselves up to be more productive in the economy for the long term. And they also could be less likely to inflate a huge housing market bubble or other bubble from buying things that they couldn't really afford. That also might end up being good for the economy in the long run because it makes financial crises less likely, and it makes economic growth more sustainable. And if so, then, for once, instead of blaming this generation of young people for being lazy or putting off adulthood, maybe the rest of us will do the right thing and end up thanking them instead.
Do you want to know more about this topic? We are going to post links to Gray Kimbrough's work over at npr.org/money. The data's really fun to go through. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and fact-checked by Nadia Lewis. Paddy Hirsch is our editor. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
Sally Herships, are you laughing at me because I said the data's fun to go through - that data's super fun to go through?
HERSHIPS: No, totally. I mean, I think we can all agree there's nothing better than a spreadsheet of some datasets.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.