Millennials Are the New Lost Generation

Compounding their troubles, Millennials are, for now, disproportionate holders of the kind of positions disappearing the fastest: This is a jobs crisis of the young, the diverse, and the contingent, meaning disproportionately of the Millennials. They make up a majority of bartenders, half of restaurant workers, and a large share of retail workers. They are also heavily dependent on gig and contract work, which is evaporating as the consumer economy grinds to a halt. It’s a cruel economic version of that old Catskill resort joke: These are terrible jobs, and now all the young people holding them are getting fired.

What little data exist point to a financial tsunami for younger workers. In a new report, Data for Progress found that a staggering 52 percent of people under the age of 45 have lost a job, been put on leave, or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic, compared with 26 percent of people over the age of 45. Nearly half said that the cash payments the federal government is sending to lower- and middle-income individuals would cover just a week or two of expenses, compared with a third of older adults. This means skipped meals, scuttered start-ups, and lost homes. It means Great Depression–type precarity for prime-age workers in the richest country on earth.

Recessions are not good for anyone, from infants to the elderly. Nor are pandemics. Americans born during this calamity will be more likely to have low birth weights and to be in poor health generally, with lifelong effects. Children will not just endure this trauma—manifested in lost months of schooling, skipped meals, housing volatility, and increased abuse—but will carry it with them. Zoomers graduating into the recession will die sooner because of it, suffering increased incidence of heart disease, lung cancer, liver disease, and drug overdoses in the coming decades; they will also earn less over the course of their lives. The elderly are likely to be the most economically insulated group but are facing the most terrifying health consequences.

Among adults the news isn’t good, either. And particularly not for those youngish-but-no-longer-young adults who came into this crisis already vulnerable, already fragile, already over-indebted and underpaid. The Millennials were left with scars during the Great Recession that never quite healed, and inherited an economy structured to manufacture precarity for the young and the poor and black and brown, and to perpetuate wealth for the old and the rich and white.

For the most part, kids of the 1980s and 1990s did it right: They avoided drugs and alcohol as adolescents. They went to college in record numbers. They sought stable, meaningful jobs and stable, meaningful careers. A lot of good that did. Studies have shown that young workers entering the labor force in a recession—as millions of Millennials did—absorb large initial earnings losses that take years and years to fade. Every 1-percentage-point bump in the unemployment rate costs new graduates 7 percent of their earnings at the start of their careers, and 2 percent of their earnings nearly two decades later. The effects are particularly acute for workers with less educational attainment; those who are least advantaged to begin with are consigned to permanently lower wages.