Media misimpressions

A number of things have crossed my desk in the past week that I feel compelled to respond to, in large part because I’ve grown deeply weary of the “kids these days” stories that dominate the media whenever so-called “millennials” are mentioned. Leaving aside the issue of who constitutes the millennials (pundits seem to include everyone born between 1980 and yesterday – there is a world of difference between a 34 year old and a tween), the apparent “failure to launch” that the media gleefully describes as characteristic of contemporary young adults is overstated.

Take for example this headline from The New York Times Magazine: “It’s Official: The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave.” It’s not clear what makes it “official,” but what is more troubling is the vague identifiers attached to the claims mixed together in the early paragraphs (which generations are actually being compared? Are the 20% of the people in their 20s and 30s living with their parents all college grads? Or does that include people still in school or living with their parents to help support them?  Are all the young adults with outstanding loans carrying student loan debt, and if so, is it all from their bachelor’s degrees? Or is the article mixing together all debt?). The presentation of the story makes it appear that for the majority of young people, being twenty-something in the U.S. involves avoiding adulthood.

Accompanying the article is a photo essay, which is evocative, but which is an example of how well-presented anecdote can distort our perceptions. The stories of the young people who appear in the story are varied, but most carry what appears to be a staggering amount of debt. That debt, as is common in the post-2008 crash era, is blamed for slowing each individuals start into self-sufficiency. However, the story of a recent college grad with $80,000 in student loan debt is an exception, rather than the rule. When graduate school debt is disaggregated from estimates of average student loan debt, as was done by a National Center of Education Statistics study (reported on by the Washington Post here), the median student loan load is a little over $10,000. The Washington Post article is worth reading in its entirety, because it helps give a more balanced picture of how to understand student debt.

Are many young people living longer in the parental homes than they were in the 1980s? Yes. This pattern reflects what was standard in most American homes before World War II and the ensuing boom years of the 1950s-60s. The re-emergence of the multi-generational home may well be with us to stay, at least in some sectors. Does this mean millennials have no work ethic, are making bad choices, or are unwilling to struggle to make it? Not even a little. While that may be the case for some (and was the case for members of every generation), treating such trends as alarming just feeds intergenerational conflict rather than helping us understand the forces at play.