I read an article about Millennials the other day. No, not the one about the billionaire startup founder or the other one about the entitled brat willing to trade getting fired to publicly make her point.

The headline said   Millennials "feel more working class" than any other generation. While it caught my eye, I almost skipped it. I have Millennial-bashing fatigue.

If I'm feeling that worn out, I can only imagine how actual Millennials feel--stereotyped, put down, and possibly a little embarrassed about the more visible and vocal members of their generation who can't seem to get out of their own way. The two extremes most often reported about this generation fail to deliver any real career perspective, but this piece was different. It had data!

The Guardian and Ipsos MORI (a U.K.-based market research firm) analyzed social survey data and found 56.5 percent adults in the U.S. aged 18 to 35 (approximately 80 million) describe themselves as working class. Further, this percentage has "fallen in almost every survey conducted every other year, dropping from 45.6 percent in 2002 to a record low of 34.8 percent in 2014."

Is this real or proof of Millennials' lack of understanding about what working class is?

It turns out that the decline in earnings is real in absolute terms (when the numbers are adjusted for factors such as inflation), and the trend goes beyond just the U.S. A related study by The Guardian found, "in seven major economies in North America and Europe, the growth in income of the average young couple and families in their 20s has lagged dramatically behind national averages over the past 30 years." The combined factors of college loan debt, limited jobs, rising home prices, and changing demographics result in financial inequality between generations.

This study is surprising because there have been such significant advancements in technology and health that it would seem logical for income to tag along. It's also surprising because of the persistent media dialogue about Millennials and success. Articles tend to focus on one of two common themes: Millennials are brilliant and worthy of our admiration as they sit atop exceptionally popular startup companies, or Millennials are frustrated and fretting about their hardships and the painful amount of time they perceive that it takes to rise to the top.

What is missed in these frequent stories is that Millennials face some real concerns and challenges that their predecessors didn't, and, as a result, the rest of us don't fully appreciate.

It got me thinking about how we each place ourselves on the broad spectrum of financial well-being and career opportunities, regardless of generation. Part of this personal assessment comes from reading the economic studies and part comes from asking ourselves the question, "Am I better off than my parents were at my age?"

Whether you consciously ask this of yourself or not, the answer to this question in our minds has to be a resounding yes to feel like you're on a generally upward trend. Increasingly, Millennials answer no. They feel stuck in place or in a downward spiral.

As a Generation X-er toiling away at my computer on the sidelines of these generational debates, I'm left with two main takeaways. First, there is truth to some of the concerns raised by Millennials about the economic challenges they face. While their claims come across as whiny at times, I'd miss the bigger point--and the opportunity to engage with them differently--if I stopped listening. Also, it feels like the breakout success of some Millennials has put real success out of reach for others.

I'd encourage Millennials out there to consider three things:

  1. First, don't give up. Quitting a low-paying job that you otherwise love feels, to me, like quitting on possibility. Who knows what the future will bring, maybe a promotion or a significant job transfer? And if you quit, what are you going to do? You'll be in an even worse position to affect change.
  2. This leads to the second consideration: The numbers don't have to define you or your peers. There are decades remaining in your professional lives to reimagine what your economic future looks like. It's a massive task, but one that your truly creative, status quo-challenging generation is well equipped to tackle.
  3. Don't wait for someone to call or to reach out with something important. Instead, empower yourself to lead from where you are. No boss's sign-offs needed. You approve you. Know that it's you, and know the time is now. Granting yourself permission to move forward with your ideas is freeing and powerful.

I believe the vast majority of Millennials will have careers--great careers, in fact--that they'll be able to pull off in spite of the economic challenges they face today. This generation's persistence and resourcefulness could result in nothing less.

Published on: Mar 24, 2016
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