If you want to know what the United States is going to be like in 30 years -- you had better look to the generation that's under 34 right now.
They're known as “Millennials.” Or, sometimes, the “Selfie Generation.” They've gotten a bit of a reputation for being plugged-in, tuned-out and perhaps overly indulged. But is this reputation is deserved?
First of all, let's just say up front: It's hard to say exactly when one generation ends and another begins. But “millennial” generally refers to kids born between 1980 and the early 2000s. These are kids who have known how to use a computer as far back as they can remember, they went to college in unprecedented droves, and tried to launch their careers around the time the economy was killing careers.
Zara Palmer was born in 1992. She is a college student in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. She will serve as the representative of the millennial generation. Her mom, Julie Palmer, was born in 1959 and represents the Baby Boomers, once dubbed the “Me Generation.”
Baby boom to tech boom
One of the defining characteristics of millennials is their use of technology. Zara will admit to it: she's online all the time. And it's not just Facebook.
“There's Pinterest. And then there's Google and then there's YouTube. And Netflix. And Hulu," says Zara. "Yeah, I'm on there quite a bit.”
Julie on the other hand, says, “I have none of that. No Facebook. People say, 'Oh get on Facebook.' I have no time for that. I have no time for that. I'd spend my whole evening ...”
“Trying to just figure out how to log in,” interjects Zara.
Point to Zara, in the millennial corner.
“Love you mom! It's true though," Zara says as they both laugh.
Zara, like most millennials, will cop to sharing a “selfie” photo but at the same time she’s disdainful of technology’s overuse. That matches at least one survey that found nine out of 10 millennials believe people do share too much online.
But technology isn't the full story here. To really compare Zara's generation with her mother's, we need to go back to when Julie was around the age Zara is now.
"We feel like we're being ripped off"
The year was 1981. Most millennials were barely a twinkle in their parents' eye. Pink Floyd were wrapping up The Wall Tour. And forget iPhones, Julie had a car … with a stereo.
“It was a sports car, Datson 280Z,” she says.
Julie would go cruising around Los Angeles listening to music. She had moved from her hometown in Ohio and wasn't quite sure what to do for a job. She hadn't gone to college.
“So I went to banker-teller school," says Julie. "I think it was a six-week gig or maybe even less than that.”
Right out of the program, she landed a job.
Now, it's a different story. Zara listens to bands like Mumford & Sons on the streaming service Pandora. And forget cruising around town. Zara has a car, but many millennials don’t. In fact, an increasing number don’t even bother to get a driver’s license.
But where Zara’s generation is really facing a different world is when comes to finding a job.
“Going to school, and still going to school, I'm terrified," says Zara. "I mean, there's no guarantee. Yeah you have a fancy piece of paper but you have to have experience that goes with it. And as far as my mom goes, she went to a teller school for six months and then …”
“No, it wasn't even," says Julie. "I think it was just like six weeks.”
“I'm going to get a four-year degree! And I'd be happy with that job,” says Zara.
The Pew Research Center just issued a major report on millennials. It described the current 26 to 33-year-olds as the best educated young adults in American history. Yet, millennials are also the first modern generation to have more debt, higher poverty and lower wealth than the two preceding generations.
“We're the ones dealing with the economy -- getting out of college," says Zara. "And we're the ones that are dealing with all these -- we feel like we're being ripped off, is what it boils down to.”
As difficult as the job market is for recent college grads, millennials with only a high school diploma fare far worse than in previous generations. So while Julie didn't feel pressure to go to college, now she says, it's practically mandatory.
“In school now, they say 'go to college, go to college.' There's really no other option.”
Who has it better?
So who has the most options in this generational face-off? Julie says it's no contest for her.
“Oh, I'm so glad I'm not in her world. Just the job situation and I don't know. I just don't know how they do it now.”
Zara says her mom’s time did seem less complicated. But she’s torn.
“I think that right now is a really neat time just because things are so innovative and they're always trumping the other thing. But I feel people becoming so consumed by that. Seriously to not look up and enjoy a beautiful day rather than being stuck to your phone screen is kind of pathetic.”
Here's one more thing to consider. Despite record student loan debt and high unemployment, the Pew Research Center found millennials do have an abundance of one thing: optimism. More than eight in 10 believe they'll be able to afford to lead the life they want -- if not now, then in the future.
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