New Census Report Shows Young Adults Continue to Struggle Economically

Today’s young adults came of age during one of the most difficult economic periods in recent history. The Great Recession hit our generation hard, driving unemployment rates up to historic levels and pushing wages down to unsustainable amounts. Last week’s jobs report provided a glimmer of hope that these trends could begin to rebound, but it remains to be seen whether such optimism will translate into tangible results for Millennial workers.

New data from the Census Bureau shows just how deep a hole young people have to climb out of. TIME’s Josh Sanburn reports:

The latest Census numbers show Americans aged 18 to 34 struggling worse than their parents did in the ‘80s.

Millennials make less money, are more likely to live in poverty and have lower rates of employment than their parents did at their ages 20 and 30 years ago.

That’s the bleak assessment from the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey numbers Thursday, which paint a financially disheartening portrait of Americans aged 18 to 34 who are still trying to rebound from the Great Recession.

The survey largely shows that millennials are worse off than the same age group in 1980, 1990 and 2000 when looking at almost every major economic indicator.

A look at median earnings provides perhaps the clearest picture of how badly young workers have faired. In 1980 the median income for the 18- to 34-year-old age group was $35,845. That figure peaked around the turn of the millennium, when young adults earned $37,355, but plummeted during the recession to $33,883 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

A similarly sad statistic can be found in the increasing numbers of young people living in poverty. In 1980 around 14 percent of young adults fell below the federal poverty level. Today, nearly 20 percent are classified as living in poverty.

Part of the problem is that there are simply too many Millennials who can’t find work at all. The Census Bureau found that 65 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds were employed, a significant drop from 1990 when 70.6 were working. And this decrease has happened against the backdrop of increasing levels of education. The data shows that Millennials are the most educated generation in history. About 22 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 16 percent in 1980.

Unsurprisingly, the drop in income has led to a concomitant increase in the percentage of young adults who returned home to live with a parent. Young adults are facing unprecedented budgetary pressure resulting from declining wages and rapidly increasing higher education costs. Many are having trouble making their student loan payment each month (defaults are at historic levels) so it is unsurprising they wouldn’t take on the added risk of a rent or mortgage payment. In 1980 just 22.9 percent of people aged 18 to 34 lived with a parent, a figure that held relatively steady for the next three decades. But since 2009 that figure has exploded to 30.3 percent

Taken together, the data paints an ugly picture of life for all-too-many young adults who are having to scratch and claw their way to a decent life. Fortunately, as Jonnelle Marte writes for the Washington Post, things may be slowly improving:

Things may be looking up. Hiring is on the rise, and millennials are benefiting from some of those job gains, with the unemployment rate for 25 to 34 year olds dropping to 6.1 percent in November from 7.4 percent a year earlier, according to the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And more people are changing jobs, according to a separate report released last month, which is usually viewed as a sign of optimism in the job market.

As of now many of those jobs appear to be in retail and hospitality, not the sectors that kick off careers, so it remains to be seen whether broader improvements in the economy will be felt by young workers, particularly in their paychecks. But this is a generation that has already suffered substantially, and many will never make up the wages they’ve lost, so hope is better than nothing.