The millennial generation in the US: Life on the brink

By Genevieve Leigh
24 May 2019

For the American ruling elite, life has never been better.

The father of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin just completed the most expensive purchase of a living artist’s work in US history, spending over $91 million on a three-foot-tall metallic sculpture. Ken Griffin, the founder of hedge fund Citadel, recently dropped $238 million on a penthouse in New York City, the most expensive US home ever purchased. And Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has invested $42 million in a 10,000-year clock.

The stock market is booming, and President Donald Trump is boasting at every turn that the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in five decades.

However, the working class, the vast majority of the population, is confronting an unprecedented social, economic, health and psychological crisis. The same processes that have produced vast sums of wealth for the ruling elite have left millions of workers on the brink of existence.

Perhaps no segment of the population reflects the devastating consequences of these processes so starkly as the generation of young people deemed the “millennials,” those born roughly between the years 1981 and 1996. More than half the 72 million American millennials are now in their 30s, with the oldest turning 38 this year.

A recent exposé by the Wall Street Journal noted that millennials are “in worse financial shape than prior living generations and may not recover.” The article, “Millennials Near Middle Age in Crisis,” concludes by stating that people born in the 1980s are at risk of becoming “America’s Lost generation.”

The older side of this generation was born at the beginning of the Reagan years, which heralded in an era of social counter-revolution against the working class that saw the dismantling of much of the industrial infrastructure of the country, and the restructuring of economic life to benefit the banks, hedge funds and other financial firms, with the collaboration of the trade unions.

By the time these youth reached the job market, the 2008 financial crash hit, vastly accelerating all of the processes begun in the 1980s. The Obama administration organized the bailout of the banks and a massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich.

The results have been devastating.

Education

More millennials have a college degree than any other generation of young adults. In 2013, 47 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds received a postsecondary degree. For most, however, getting a college education has not led to a significant increase in quality of living.

Instead, millions of young people are working jobs for which they are vastly overqualified and are shackled with unprecedented levels of debt. For the millennials who did not go to college, the situation is even worse.

Les milléniaux ont accumulé 300% de dettes étudiantes de plus que la génération de leurs parents (à gauche), le nombre d'heures de salaire minimum à payer pour quatre années d’université (à droite)

Jobs and wages

Many millennials rely on what is referred to as the “gig economy,” where workers often make minimum wage, have no benefits or retirement plan, and are forced to work two, three or even four jobs to make ends meet.

This work is often paid by task, assignment or sales, and it requires only a short-term relationship between the worker and the customer. These include jobs like freelance work, driving for Uber, sales on Etsy, renting out rooms on Airbnb, and other various temp jobs.

Proportion de la rémunération du PDG par rapport à celle des travailleurs

Housing

Between 2001 and 2014, the number of households spending over half their incomes on rent grew by more than 50 percent. As housing prices have exploded, the number of 30- to 34-year-olds (the older segment of millennials) who own homes has plummeted.

Andréa, a non-profit worker from California

Andréa is a 25-year-old non-profit worker from California. “I didn’t go to Columbia or Harvard. I got a basic education. I was responsible and stayed local to pay in-state tuition. Now, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, the lowest my monthly bill can possibly be is $200 a month.

“It has an impact on every decision I make. Any extra bill matters. I can’t think about buying a car or getting sick. In the winter, I had to go to the emergency room. I spent no more than an hour in the ER. Two months later I got a bill in the mail saying they were charging me $9,000.

“Nowadays your money is split so many ways. I feel like all my life decisions are made in the shadow of my debt. It affects decisions about starting a family, where and how to live. I honestly feel that there is not really even room to dream of owning a home.”

Health and healthcare

Being poor in America is a clear predictor that the healthcare you receive will be far inferior to that of your wealthy counterparts. The statistics on the access, cost and quality of healthcare for millennials is, above all, an indictment of former president Barack Obama’s signature domestic “Obamacare” policy, which further restructured the US healthcare system in the interests of big business.

Emma, a singer and performer from Massachusetts

Emma is a 30-year-old from Massachusetts. She is a college graduate, who works as a singer and performer.

“When something hurts or I am sick, I wait a while and see if it will go away because I am scared to spend a bunch of money to see a doctor. Two summers ago, I got pretty sick. I ended up going to the doctor and had to spend $1,200 to treat strep throat. It was a cost I couldn’t afford. At the time I was between two contracts with the same company. Because I was not under contract, I was no longer something they needed to worry about.

“I think for working-class millennials, it feels like your whole life is a constant crisis.”

Social patterns and societal milestones

The precarious financial situation facing millennials has profoundly altered demographic and economic conditions for an entire generation, which is expected to last through the end of the century.

Millennials and the working class

While the comparison between generations is useful in marking the significant decline in conditions for the working class as a whole, it can give a distorted view of the real issues involved in this immense social crisis.

Many mainstream media narratives, obscuring the fundamental class issues, attempt to pit generations against each other, with headlines such as “How the baby boomers wrecked the economy for millennials” from Vox, or “The coming generation war,” which recently ran in The Atlantic.

However, millennials as a generation are divided by class just as with all generations. Among the many historic milestones shattered by the millennial generation is also that of income inequality.

There is a significant layer of the millennial generation that has entered the ranks of the ultra-rich. In 2003, there were only 21 billionaires under 40. By 2017, the number had more than doubled, to 46.

The average wealth of young billionaires is also on the rise. Seven years ago, the average young billionaire was worth $3.2 billion. Today, the richest millennials are worth some $4.1 billion.

The conditions facing working class millennials are the same conditions facing the entire working class, of which those in the millennial generation are a particularly vulnerable layer.

Every age group of the working class has been deeply affected by the decline in living standards over the last forty years. Recent data shows that suicide deaths and other “deaths of despair” have increased most dramatically among those aged 45 to 64 (largely Generation X).

Among those who are older, including many Baby Boomers, some 14.7 percent are said to be food-insecure, totaling at least 9.8 million people. Compared to 2001, this constitutes a rise of 37 percent, with the number of seniors increasing in the same period 109 percent.

The younger generation has come of age in world of immense contradiction, with enormous developments in technology and science, while at the same time thrown into living conditions of the past, more and more resembling the 1920s. Instability and uncertainty are among the defining features of everyday life. Most millennials are just one life event away from losing everything.

However, these conditions have also created the objective basis for a vast radicalization of young people and workers across the globe. The past two years have been marked by the reemergence of the class struggle internationally.

As the Journal itself nervously points out, the millennial generation is also the first generation to favor socialism to capitalism. As poll after poll shows, the popularity of socialism among young people is growing at a rapid pace.

Far from becoming the “Lost Generation” predicted by the Wall Street Journal, this generation of workers carries within it an enormous source of revolutionary potential.

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