01-24-Unlucky Millennials_b

Are Millennials the Unluckiest Generation?

Which generation had the toughest time as young adults?

This blog is based on findings from “Losing More Ground,” PRB’s latest Population Bulletin.

Recessions, pandemics, natural disasters, and skyrocketing home prices are just a few of the challenges Millennials have faced in their young adulthood. Economic headwinds, in particular, have led some to dub them the “unluckiest generation.” But is that really true?

A generation—which we define here as a group of people born during specific timeframes (listed below)—might be considered unlucky if it encountered major economic, social, geopolitical, and/or health and safety challenges. These challenges may affect people of all ages to some degree, but they can be especially devastating for young adults, whose circumstances and choices can set the tone for the rest of their lives.

Those who say Millennials aren’t unlucky point to challenges other generations have faced. The Silent Generation had their childhoods upended by World War II, faced a military draft in their teen years, and were rocked by recession in young adulthood (in the early 1960s, and again in 1970). Nevertheless, some observers suggest that those born between 1929 and 1945 might be the “Lucky Few.”

The next generation, the Baby Boomers, also faced military drafts, geopolitical instability, and a few more recessions—three between 1973 and 1983. (As for my generation, Gen X? Well, we might be the luckiest—just two brief economic dips between 1990 and 2002, no world wars, and no military conscription. But living through 9/11 and the ensuing war wasn’t exactly easy.)

And by some measures, Millennials have many advantages over prior generations. They’re much more educated than previous generations of young people, and teen birth rates are at historic lows. They’re also making more money: Median income for young adults has risen rapidly in recent years, after falling in the wake of the Great Recession. (However, it’s worth noting that while median income has risen for young women across generations the same is not true for young men. In 2022 men ages 25 to 34 still earned less, after adjusting for inflation, than men ages 25 to 34 did in the early 1970s.)

Millennials are also living in a world that, in some important ways, might be more equitable than the one their parents and grandparents grew up in. The gender pay gap is easing. Longstanding barriers in education and the workplace have been reduced since the 1960s, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and ensuing legislation, such as Title IX. And while systemic racism, discrimination, and inequities are still very real problems, newer laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2003) have sparked incremental improvements in worker and individual protections. The work of previous generations in these efforts had made a real difference for today’s young people.

But on many fronts, Millennials are struggling. Incarceration rates among Millennial young adults are dramatically higher than they were when members of the Silent Generation and Baby Boom were the same age. The federal minimum wage hasn’t risen since 2009, but inflation and cost of living have. And the cost of housing has skyrocketed, whether you’re renting or buying. By 2021, the number of renters experiencing rental cost burden reached record levels.

Part of the Millennial “bad luck” story is that progress is not evenly shared. Millennial young adults from historically marginalized groups—those who are in poverty, have completed less schooling, or are not white—have not enjoyed the educational and economic gains of their more advantaged peers. The Gini index, which measures inequality across households, rose by more than 25%  between 1968 and 2022. Millennial young adults are among the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, and a growing body of research links several measures of inequality —from health to housing to wealth—to structural racism. For many Millennials, opportunities are limited by legacy factors beyond their immediate control.

For young women, there are additional troubling trends. Access to health care—especially reproductive health and abortion care—is being denied in many states. Maternal mortality rates are surging, especially for Black women. And both suicide and homicide rates are rising among young women.

Unequal gains aren’t the only anchor weighing down the Millennial generation. By the most fundamental measure of human well-being—mortality rates—Millennials are losing ground. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, all-cause mortality rates (128.8 deaths per 100,000 people ages 25 to 34 in 2019) had climbed to levels last seen in the mid-1990s and were higher than death rates in the early 1980s. (Rates from 1982–1985 were all below 126 deaths per 100,000 people ages 25 to 34.) In the first year of the pandemic, the all-cause mortality rate (159.5) was the highest in more than 50 years. (The rate was 157.4 in 1970.) And the rate continued to climb, reaching an eye-watering 180.8 in 2021.

Millennial young adults were also the first generation to have practiced active shooter drills during their day-to-day school activities. While Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers may have seen a fallout shelter in their school, nuclear attacks never materialized. On the other hand, school shootings in particular—and mass shootings more broadly—have happened with alarming frequency. While there is no official definition of a mass shooting, multiple sources and varying definitions point to an increase in mass shootings and an associated increase in negative health outcomes. In addition to the collective trauma of mass shootings, active shooter drills themselves have been found to harm mental health.

Millennials face another challenge that, while not new in nature, is new in scale. The frequency and severity of natural disasters have increased dramatically and there’s a growing body of evidence that exposure to natural disasters can have lifelong negative consequences.

Each generation can claim that some element of their young adulthood was challenging—because each has had hardships. But recent data tell an emerging story for today’s young adults, especially with respect to health and safety measures. Millennials may or may not be the unluckiest generation, but no one should say they’ve had it easy.

How and why we define generations

Given the challenges and criticisms with “generation” analysis, why are we using generational labels? There are two reasons.

First, the type of study we are doing doesn’t just put labels on groups of people by age today (which muddles age and birth cohort effects). Rather, we are looking at each group’s circumstances when they were all the same age (25 to 34). We also do not attribute conclusions to either period or cohort effects and focus on comparing the data across generations.

Second, the broad acceptance of generational labels helps to communicate difficult complex demographic analyses to audiences outside academia. If used responsibly, generational labels can expand our collective understanding of how economic, political, and social events have changed the trajectory for young people in the United States.

In Losing More Ground, our generation definitions are:

  • The Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965 to 1980)
  • Millennials (born 1981 to 1999)
  • Gen Z (born 2000 and later).

While the exact birth years for each cohort may vary slightly depending on the source, these dates generally fall well within the most accepted generational definitions.