Millennials are responsible, we are told, for the avocado shortage and the death of cable TV, paper napkins, and the 9-to-5 workday. This generation, whose oldest members have now reached their 40s, are blamed for many things, in fact. However, a persistent myth often spread by millennials themselves is that they are broke.
In a recent article at The Atlantic, prominent sociologist Jean Twenge took a closer look at this widely held assumption. Twenge acknowledges that many millennials got off to a rough start having graduated around the time of the 2008 financial crisis. In 2012, median household income among 25- to 34-year-olds was down 13% compared to the high point of 2000. Not helping was the fact that many graduated from college with an increased load of student debt. Also prompting the conclusion that this was a generation without savings was a 2018 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which showed that the median wealth of those born in the ’80s was 34% lower than that of previous generations.
These factors shaped how millennials saw themselves. One survey found that 45% of millennials agreed with the statement, “Because of my money situation, I will never have the things I want in life,” compared to 35% of the general population. Over half of millennials feared that “the money I have or will save won’t last.”
However, after surveying financial data over the last 10 years, Twenge now believes that the reality no longer justifies their fears.
Millennials, as a group, are not broke—they are, in fact, thriving economically. That wasn’t true a decade ago, and prosperity within the generation today is not evenly shared. But since the mid-2010s, [m]illennials on the whole have made a breathtaking financial comeback.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019, writes Twenge, millennial household income, even adjusted for inflation, was about $9,000 higher than that of Gen Xers at the same age and $10,000 more than baby boomers at the same age. Fewer millennials fell into poverty in their 20s and 30s than their boomer and Gen X forebears. And, while 50% of boomers owned a home at ages 25-39, 48% of millennials did, too. Millennials are also rapidly overcoming the savings gap that was reported by the Reserve Bank of St. Louis, spurred on by higher wages from college degrees.
The discrepancy between perception and reality is partly due to the millennial tendency to delay the key milestones of marriage, home-buying, and saving. And they do, Twenge concludes, face challenges like every generation of Americans before them have. Still, the right question to ask, she thinks, is not “if the American dream is still alive,” but what if “no one believes it to be?”
This underscores just how powerfully ideas shape our lives. Economic trends matter, but so do the stories we tell about them. Those stories are shaped by what we believe about life and the world, right and wrong, reality, and human identity. Beneath this generation’s historically poor mental health, uptick in alcoholism, and subsequent swing toward sobriety is a crisis of meaning now so acutely felt in a world untethered from absolutes or givens. This was the generation told that they could define reality while rejecting the wisdom and structures of the past. The weight of the world was placed on their shoulders, and it was heavy indeed.
To those struggling, Scripture gives both voice and comfort. For all of us, it gives the only solid foundation for meaning and purpose. To be clear, Scripture never equates financial success with happiness or meaning, something that social science research continues to affirm. Instead, money is a means (among many) by which we might pursue the true end of life, to know and love God.
The true crisis for millennials (and any generation, for that matter) is not a financial one. It’s a crisis of meaning, purpose, and of knowing what we are ultimately for.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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