Five Ways Gen Y Has It Harder Than You Did

In the wake of Occupy Wall Street I’ve noticed a few members of my generation - Gen X - sounding a little grumpy on Facebook, “Why don’t they get jobs and work hard like we did?” (Geez, guys, why don’t you just start complaining about Elvis’s pelvis and Beatniks?!) Not to mention that we were once referred to as “apathetic,” “lazy,” and “slackers.” That was until the tech boom turned us into the one of most innovative and entrepreneurial generations in history. The younger cohort of Gen Y, the ones that are just entering workforce now, are facing so many unprecedented challenges that some people are now referring to them as the “Lost Generation.”

Photo courtesy of _PaulS_

It’s not that things aren’t tough for X’ers, we will likely not retire as early or with as much security as our parents, but we at least we got a fighting start. Here is why I think the generation right behind us has the deck stacked against them.

1) Students Loans, Rising Tuition and Predatory Lenders: The average student debt for 2010 graduate was $25,250. I graduated with a manageable, but still hefty, $15,000 in undergraduate loans. That was close to the national average* in the late ‘90s. In ‘92-’93 the average student debt for a bachelor’s degree was $10,200. Tuition has grown exponentially over the last 40 years and not relative to middle-class income. Private school tuition often tops $36,000 a year these days, but in the early ‘70s my mom paid for my dad’s private law school tuition out of her teacher’s salary. That same school now charges the equivalent of a young teacher’s annual salary - roughly $30,000 per year. Add to all of this the increase in predatory (sub-prime) student loans over the last eight years and an increase in for-profit colleges and we have thousands of young people (some of them military veterans) mired in high-interest student debt simply because they were trying to do the “right” thing and further their education.

Photo courtesy of Alla_G

2) Unemployment: According to a recent CNN story people between 16-24 make up 26% of the unemployed. When I graduated from college in 1998 the national unemployment rate was about 4.5%, but right now it is hovering around 9% nationally. Assuming that young adults are lazy and don’t want to work isn’t exactly fair in a tough job market. They are the least experienced and, therefore, most likely to lose out to older workers.

3) War: Those of us who entered the work force in the ‘90s not only benefited from a tech boom that resulted in a strong economy overall - and much easier time starting our careers - our country wasn’t in two protracted wars. There was a general sense of peace time optimism as we entered adulthood. Both Generations X and Y have been heavily represented in our recent wars and are now coming home to find that jobs are scarce, access to mental health care (i.e. PTSD) inadequate and that they may need further training (see my above comments on student loans).

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army

4) Polarization of Media: There was a time when Americans had about four sources of news and most of the news agencies at least attempted to be fair and objective. I’m not arguing that they always succeeded in their mission to be objective, but with the advent of cable news and the internet there are few “trusted sources” that most citizens share. Every “news” source has a point of view, every commentator plays to a niche audience and we tend to listen to the voices that support our own bias. It’s not all bad news. We’ve also witnessed a democratization of media that means organizations - such as Lipstick and Politics - have a voice that they never would have had twenty years ago. However, because the barriers to enter the conversation are almost non-existent it means that everyone, no matter how crazy or off-base, has a voice. Being an informed citizen today means having a sophisticated level of media literacy.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

5) Gridlock in Washington:
This is nothing new and affects us all, but it does impact younger people the most because they are the most economically vulnerable and will be on this planet after the rest of us are long gone. The argument has been made that the most extreme factions of each party control the political conversation and dominate the parties’ primary elections. As a result we elect more extreme, contentious personalities to Congress who don’t necessarily represent the country as a whole. Also, there was apparently a time in Washington when our Representatives and Senators socialized together - across party lines (!) - more than they do now. There was more collegiality and, therefore, stuff actually got done.