At the close of the 20th century, a formative identity began to take shape among a new generation of American teenagers. These kids were not just the next wave of disaffected and disinterested Gen X youth. Rather, they were upbeat and engaged. Reared by parents determined to be supportive and caring, this cohort of children had a decidedly optimistic and outward-looking disposition. They were positive and confident, ready to play (and later, to collaborate) with one another. They were interested in learning from the adults around them as opposed to questioning their authority. Deploying new and seemingly transformative technologies, they embraced their Millennial moniker and prepared for the task of improving society around them. They were poised for greatness and ready to make their mark on the 21st century.
But a decade and a half later, events beyond their control are hampering their potential. They are entering what should be the prime of their working lives and family-forming years. Instead, through an accident of history, they are entering adulthood in an age of uncertainty. The Great Recession dramatically altered the economic landscape, and Millennials will be dealing with its consequences for decades to come. Five years after the official end of the recession, incomes remain stagnant, and, compared to their parents at a similar age, Millennials have lower levels of wealth and higher levels of debt. The weak recovery has exacerbated inequalities in our society and created pervasive conditions for downward mobility instead of opportunities for more broadly shared prosperity. Navigating the risks on the road to adulthood has become more arduous for this rising generation, and this is undermining their potential, reordering their aspirations, and complicating many of their key life decisions.
These challenges are concerning not just for the lives of today’s young adults, but also for the fortunes of the nation as a whole. It should be a collective project to reverse Millennials’ declining mobility, support their family choices, and cultivate their resiliency. Successful policy interventions to bolster the prospects of this generation must not be based on the needs and characteristics of previous generations; they must be aligned with their prevailing public attitudes, preferences, and attributes and be reflective of the modern economic, technological, and social context. Every generation has a past, present, and future. Understanding where Millennials have come from and how they have fared in the wake of the Great Recession provides a foundation for designing effective public policy that can help this generation achieve its promise and reach its full capabilities, which will benefit us all.
Millennials and the State of Post-Secondary Education
Young people overwhelmingly believe that a post-secondary degree is important in today’s competitive economy. They are right: a college education pays off tremendously. When jobs became scarce with the onset of the Great Recession, many students responded by investing in their future. Perhaps not surprisingly, enrollment in higher education increased 3.5 percent between 2009 and 2012. But the landscape of higher education in America has continued to change in key ways, raising a series of fundamental questions. Is a college degree worth the rising cost of tuition? What degrees are most useful in a 21st century economy? With more people today pursuing some type of postsecondary education, we all have a stake in reforms to make higher education more inclusive, affordable, and accessible.
 Demos and Young Invincibles, Higher Education, The State of Young America, Washington, D.C., 2011.
 David Bergeron, “What Does Value Look Like In Education,” Center for American Progress, January 29, 2014.
Millennials and Student Debt
Student debt is a pocketbook issue for the Millennial generation. Gone are the days when students could work full time at a summer job to pay for college. As college costs have skyrocketed, students and their families have taken on debt to make up the difference. Because of the high cost of college and growing student debt, some are wondering whether college is worth it. On average, the answer is yes. However, many questions remain. Will these trends ever slow? How are student loans affecting the Millennial generation? Will a trillion dollars in debt affect the broader economy?
A Life-Cycle and Generational Perspective on the Wealth and Income of Millennials
Young adulthood is the life stage when the greatest increases in income and wealth typically occur, yet entering into this period during the Great Recession has put Millennials on a different trajectory. As a result, this generation will need to make very large gains in the years ahead to compensate for these shortfalls.
Understanding the dynamics of how the recession has impaired the financial outlook of Millennials, such as identifying how far behind they are compared to previous generations of young adults, the impact of the recession on their current wealth holdings and earning potential, and the pace at which they’re recovering, is essential to developing appropriate policy interventions that can put them back on track.
Millennials and Homeownership
For young people throughout the twentieth century, and down to Millennials today, becoming a first-time homeowner has represented a symbolic milestone along the road to adulthood. From a financial perspective, owning a home can be a rewarding investment, providing a means to take advantage of generous tax breaks and accrued equity. Buying a home also allows families to access neighborhood amenities and a range of intangible benefits that come with residential stability. While homeownership is not always the right choice—financial or otherwise—for families in all circumstances, it has historically been one of the most desired and valuable assets on the balance sheets of American families. Yet the Great Recession may have changed the calculation young families make when thinking about becoming a homeowner.
Millennials and Retirement
Despite coming of age in a tough economic climate, Millennials perceive their financial prospects to be favorable even in the face of overwhelmingly gloomy evidence about their retirement preparedness.1 But being financially secure in retirement takes more than optimism. The evidence about Millennials’ actual financial status reveals a generation struggling to save for the long-term, a problem complicated by the unique economic and employment situations it faces and by the policy landscape it has inherited.
Millennials, Work, and the Economy
For most young people, earnings from work constitute virtually all of their income. Research shows that the trajectory of most individuals’ lifetime wage and salary earnings is heavily influenced by labor-market conditions when they enter the workforce. Entering a bad job market with relatively less education exacts an especially large and long-lasting toll on an individual’s health and life satisfaction. Clearly, then, the difficult job market facing Millennials during and after the Great Recession poses a significant challenge to the current and future well-being of today’s young adults, especially those with low levels of education or training.
 Among people aged 25-34 in 2012, 94.4 percent of total income came from employment or self-employment (i.e. earnings from work). Among all people 35 or older, the share of earnings from work was 77.7 percent (Bureau of the Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey).
 Joseph G. Altonji, Lisa B. Kahn, and Jamin D. Speer, “Cashier or Consultant? Entry Labor Market Conditions, Field of Study, and Career Success,” Yale University working paper, September 2013.
 David Cutler, Wei Huang, and Adriana Lleras-Muney, “When Does Education Matter? The Protective Effect of Education for Cohorts Graduating in Bad Times,” NBER working paper 20156, May 2014.
Shifting Work and Family Trends Among Millennials
Members of the Millennial generation in the United States face rapidly changing—and at times contradictory—socio-economic circumstances. They are generally highly educated, but are saddled with historic amounts of student debt and face daunting levels of un- and underemployment. They care deeply about employment benefits at a time when paid sick and family leave are still distant realities and labor organizing and hard-won workplace protections are being eroded. Many have a desire to delay childbearing because of concerns about economic security, but also have an unmet need for affordable family planning options. Over the past decade we have seen changes in the economy, work, and class status drive Millennial views on marriage and family formation, while at the same time attitudes about family responsibilities, work-life balance, and employment benefits are shifting the way Millennials are engaging in the workforce.
The Civic and Political Participation of Millennials
Millennials have come of age in a time of shifting landscapes and tumultuous change. Growing up in the Information Age, Millennials are empowered by information and demand transparency and authenticity. The explosion of customization and choice in the marketplace has contributed to a generation unhindered by brand loyalty. And as a cohort, Millennials have already confronted several major crises—from domestic terrorism to the Great Recession to climate change.
Millennials’ unique historic experiences have shaped their relationship with politics and their communities. Given their sheer numbers, Millennials are a potentially powerful political force, yet they do not pursue traditional forms of civic engagement, such as voting, and are more likely to eschew party identity. Why is this? What real and perceived barriers to engagement exist? Despite their skepticism of old- school party politics, the generation is finding other and more accessible pathways to participate, most notably through volunteering, consumer activism, and civic uses of social media. What are the consequences of pushing Millennials out of politics? What are the implications of alternative avenues of engagement? Most significantly, what is the relationship between current notions of Millennials’ political engagement and the defining challenges of their time?