Generational researchers usually identify millennials—people born between the years 1981 and 2000—as the most educated, most diverse generation to date. And they’re right. Over a third of millennials hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and 43 percent of millennials identify with one or more minority group. Both of these are high-water marks for any generation of Americans.
But a funny thing happens when you apply labels like this to groups. The characteristic that is common to only a portion of the group often slips over in people’s minds to represent the entire cohort. Social scientists probably already have a better name for this effect, but for now, let’s just call it “label creep.”
Label creep can have some unfortunate effects in that it can establish stereotypes that are not representative. For example, while millennials are the “most educated,” this obscures the fact that two-thirds of millennials didn’t go to college; and while they are the “most diverse,” a majority of of them still do not claim a minority identification.
There are other labels that generational researchers use to characterize millennials: highly optimistic, high achievers, excessively sheltered and coddled, and widely tolerant of human difference. These characteristics might be more abundant among millennials than in preceding generations, but they are not always the experience of the majority of young people. And so, because of label creep, trying to find what makes millennials different can wind up doing more to establish stereotypes than identify realities.
These misleading characterizations are dangerous in an era where identity, socioeconomic status, and even public opinion have such great impact on one’s life experiences. When people only see a small portion of the picture, they are less likely to support policies that address less-than-visible, but equally real, needs. Why would the “most educated” generation, for example, need job training? How could the “most diverse” generation be racist?
Let’s explore some of the convenient stereotypes that are often applied to the millennials, and how they contort our understanding of where this generation is headed.
Myth 1: The Overachieving Millennial
More millennials went to college than any preceding generation, causing the assumption that they have their pick when it comes to navigating the job market and earning a healthy income. But the fact is that two-thirds of the “most educated” generation (ages 25 to 32) still lack a bachelor’s degree. And this is a huge problem because, to a much greater extent than for earlier generations, the absence of a college degree produces deep and abiding income and wealth disparities within the generation.
Millennial college graduates currently earn about $17,500 more each year than their counterparts that have only a high school diploma. Since we are talking about the 35-and-under crowd, for whom salaries are generally lower to begin with, this is a significant salary differential. In 1979, for example, members of the Baby Boomers in the same age range only had a $9,000 gap between high school grads and college grads.
What’s worse, over 12 percent of millennials who don’t possess a college degree are unemployed, and 22 percent of them fall below the economic poverty line.
So the big story here is not that more millennials are college educated; it is actually that those who aren’t—the majority of them, in fact—are being left in the dust.
And there’s a race multiplier that makes this situation even worse. While over 40 percent of white Americans earned a college degree by age 29, only about 22 percent of black Americans did. Even high school completion rates are substantially lower among millennials of color than they are for white youth. In 2013, 79 percent of Latinos and 82 percent of blacks between the ages of 18 and 24 had high school degrees, compared with 89 percent of white youth of the same age. The gap widens even further in certain geographic areas, particularly in large urban centers.
If education is a great asset for the millennial generation, then pervasive educational inequality is its downfall.
Myth 2: The Sheltered Millennial
Generational researchers paint a picture of millennials as being sheltered, highly scheduled, and heavily supervised—and this might well be accurate, if you are comparing today’s well-to-do young people with the privileged youth of the Gen X era. But a large body of sociological and anthropological research suggests that this image of a sheltered and protected millennial is a class-based phenomenon.
Sociology and education professor Annette Lareau discusses this class-based stratification in her book Unequal Childhoods, based on a multi-year study that followed middle-, working-class, and poor families as they raised their children. Lareau noticed that while the wealthier families extensively filled their kids’ free time with organized activities and closely oversaw their children’s experiences in institutions, lower-income parents tended to turn over more responsibility to children and placed a higher value on unstructured time.
Interestingly, these patterns continued even as the children reached adulthood. Middle-class parents continued to intervene in significant ways in the lives of their adult children—both in advantageous and inappropriate ways. When Lareau revisited the experiences of these 19-to-21 year old affluent millennials, she found that several of their heavily involved parents consistently sheltered and managed situations for their kids in ways that created overprotected, if institutionally inept, adults.
In contrast, lower-income young adults in the study, while appreciative of their parents, learned to advocate for themselves and navigate a challenging society with little to no intervention. For better or worse, this group of millennials, neither shielded nor supervised, saw the world with little pomp or pretense.
Myth 3: The “Colorblind” Millennial
Perhaps most troubling is that researchers have constructed an all-too-convenient narrative about millennials and race. The sheer number of millennials of color means that surveys about race and tolerance among young adults paint a portrait of an exceptionally progressive generation. Millennials, it turns out, are much more accepting of interracial marriage and LGBTQ rights than their parents were. While this is certainly good news, it supports an all-too-convenient narrative about millennials and race that serves as a screen for more troubling findings.
For example, when researchers isolate the survey responses of white American millennials, little difference exists between their responses and those of their parents. So millennials—white millennials, at least—might not in fact be more tolerant; they might just be outnumbered. And what’s worse, this picture of a more colorblind society might actually be making life harder for minorities, not better.
A 2012 Public Religion Research Institute study found that 58 percent of white millennials believe that discrimination against white people has become as big of a problem as discrimination against minorities; only 39 percent of Hispanic millennials and 24 percent of black millennials agree. A 2014 MTV/David Binder study revealed that less than 40 percent of millennials believe that white people have more opportunities than people of color, while 65 percent of minorities felt differently. And white millennials, perhaps because they are less likely to be forced into discussions of race, are significantly more optimistic about the state of race relations than youth of color. One-fifth of white millennials believe that Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality has been fully achieved, and they are significantly more likely to say that blacks and whites get along well than are non-white millennials.
Seemingly, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 ushered in an era of declining rates of discrimination as perceived by white people, particularly young white people. And yet more data undercuts this self-perception of millennials as a uniquely tolerant generation: multiple studies have found that as more and more people begin to see discrimination as dead, negative opinions and implicit biases against black people have actually increased, as has opposition to immigration. Young white Americans are certainly more willing to befriend a black person or date a Latino, but many still fail to see or acknowledge structural inequalities. And thus, they could be more likely to contribute to them, and certainly less likely to fight against them.
As a whole, this broad group of millennials is over-idealized when it comes to acceptance of difference, and too narrowly constructed to exclude those young people who often slip into the shadows of poverty and otherness. Much of our generational analysis is based on those who already hold significant power, resources, and visibility—which does very little to improve the lives of others.
So Why Does This Matter?
Despite decades of progress by equity and civil rights leaders, it turns out that the millennial generation is still deeply segregated by both race and class. The “most diverse” generation is living in a nation where neighborhoods are even more likely to suffer from the effects of concentrated poverty or isolation than a generation earlier.
In a digital age, where connection to other people is only a click away, we can easily consume music, clothing styles, dance crazes, and recipes across cultures. But we can’t live each other’s experiences.
Today, it is far more difficult to challenge one another’s assumptions, experience the evidence for another’s perspective, or sustain meaningful conversations across identities when zoning boundaries separate those who most need to talk to one another. In many districts across America, parents of millennials, who grew up in a more active era of court-mandated school desegregation, went to schools that were more diverse than those their children attended. And multiple studies show that these walls between worlds have troubling effects: gaps in employment, income, wealth, and incarceration are either stagnant, or growing. The ways that we currently discuss millennial culture—as an idyllic generation that is #blessed, as the popular hashtag says—obscures both the severity of this problem of inequity and the urgency that is necessary in seeking solutions.
Representation matters. Defining a generation in terms of a subset sends a message to some young people that their inclusion and experiences are secondary or unimportant. Simultaneously, it reinforces the supremacy of those who are already most privileged. Schools and colleges that use the popular profile of a millennial to plan programming, curricula, policy changes, or events risk overlooking the low-income student who has no parental support whatsoever at age 19. Programs looking at collegiate mental health might overlook the nearly 40 percent of black youth who report fear of gun violence, the 54 percent of black youth who know somebody who has experienced police harassment or violence, or the low health insurance coverage rates among young Latinos. Likewise, these same schools might overestimate the ability of racially, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse students to interact in real, respectful, and productive ways with one another.
Looking at the millennial generation, we are looking at the future of America. Certainly, millennials have a lot of things going for them. Young people have capitalized on the democratizing power of social media, staging innovative movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and #BlackLivesMatter that demand transparency and change—an improvement over the political apathy of the preceding cohort. And although millennials still have room to grow when it comes to cross-cultural understanding, Americans of all ages are becoming more racially tolerant with each passing decade. We are headed in the right direction, but not fast enough. In order to maximize the potential of our generation, we need to know and understand the experiences, triumphs and challenges of the various identities that comprise it. Educational organizations and policymakers should openly acknowledge that the experiences of the marginalized constitute valid and important data in defining a generation, and that we must address inequality in order to maximize the great generational potential of millennials.