New Survey of Millennials Focuses on Economic Issues

A new poll finds the majority of millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – are hopeful about their economic future, even though only one-third have career jobs.

The latest GenForward survey from the University of Chicago found most millennials think that they're going to do better than their parents, said political scientist Vlad Medenica.

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Every two months since 2016, the GenForward project surveys racially and ethnically diverse young adults nationwide about their attitudes on everything from politics and economics, to racism and homophobia.

We spoke with Medenica about the latest survey “The Nature of Work,” that delves into millennials’ economic lives. 

Millennials seem to have high hopes for their future and that they'll do better than their parents.

Yes. One of the things that stood out to us when we were doing this is just how optimistic millennials are when it comes to their economic futures. When we ask them generally speaking about their generation whether they're going to do better than their parents’ generation, most millennials in the aggregate and within race and ethnicity also say that they do think that they're going to do better. When you ask them about themselves personally, they do think they're going to do better than their parents did. This is a little bit lower in the case of white millennials, but that's not too surprising sort of given the narratives we've heard post-2016 around economic anxiety.

When some people think of millennials, they think of people working in the gig economy. But that's not what millennials want necessarily?

We explicitly asked millennials in our sample whether they preferred participating in the gig economy, so the short term sort of contract work that has been popularized by companies like Uber and Airbnb. But we actually find that most millennials – and this is true across race and ethnicity– most millennials really do prefer the traditional one long career path that previous generations have experienced. And so what we think is this narrative of millennials preferring to participate in a gig economy is really not necessarily the case. It's just something that we see because of necessity. A lot of millennials are participating in this sort of work because that's just the economic realities that we face, not necessarily something that they choose to do.

Isn’t it ironic that they feel good about their future and yet they still only one-third are in a career job?

That's right. Only about a third are in a job that's directly related to their career. The rest of the millennials say that they're in a job that might be a stepping stone to a career or really just a job to get by. And we see those numbers increase when we look at just African American and Latinx millennials.

When they're looking for a new job what do they want?

We ask them two sorts of questions around this issue. One is a little bit more values based. We ask them: What's important to you? Is it a company that shares your values? Or is it something else? And we see that by and large millennials really value a flexible work schedule and African American millennials in particular value working for a company that cares about diversity.

But when we introduce sort of material benefits – things like salary, health care and retirement in addition to these other values – the material benefits really outweigh everything else. So salary and benefits are the main considerations for millennials. I guess when you think about it, that isn't really that much different than anyone else, right? When you're thinking about taking a job it's all about salary and benefits. And maybe these other considerations become less important.

And are black millennials more likely to have a second job?

Yes. So we ask millennials a number of questions about their employment, if they're working full time, part time, not working. But we know that employment is complicated. It can take many forms and a lot of folks hold multiple jobs and this is particularly true among African Americans. Higher numbers of African Americans say that they're more likely to hold a second job or at least work in some sort of outside employment in addition to their primary job. And they spend quite a bit of time on that second job. The median response that we got when we asked folks how long they spend working on these second jobs is that we see millennials are working somewhere around 15 hours per week in addition to their to their first job.

Do they feel like they'll be able to pay off their student debt, as well as find and keep a job?

Interestingly, yes. This is where we see the optimism kind of creeping up again. When we asked folks whether they think they can find a new job if they had to at this moment, a lot of millennials say yes, they do feel confident that they'd be able to find another job if they needed one. But at the same time we see concern around retirement planning. When we asked them about their confidence and their savings and investments for the future, (millennials) don't necessarily feel that confident that they're going to have enough money to retire comfortably. And they don't feel confident either when we ask them about Social Security. So again we see kind of an optimism when it comes to their own sort of personal economic futures but also a little bit of skepticism and caution when it comes to how that's going to play out in the future. And I think that's one of the reasons that we see a lot of support for government intervention in these areas.

Howard Tullman, the former CEO of 1871, said millennials are entitled and lazy. What does your research say?

Our research points to the exact opposite of that. So what Howard Tullman said about millennials being lazy is a common narrative that I think we hear very often. But when we dig into the data about the economic lives of millennials we see pretty high employment among millennials and more than that, pretty significant numbers of millennials, particularly millennials of color working more than one job and spending a significant amount of time on those secondary jobs. I would say that millennials seem to be encountering an economy that demands more of them while giving them less. And so we see millennials putting in the work but maybe not reaping some of the benefits that previous generations have. So, (we see) delaying milestones like purchasing a home or getting married because of economic reasons more than anything.  

From all the data that you collect, this group isn't as monolithic as folks might think, right?

No, quite the opposite. So again when people think about millennials (and) when they talk about millennials in the aggregate, I think they have a very specific idea of who a millennial is or what a millennial looks like. And again, it's this entitled sort of person who spends all of their discretionary income on superficial things like avocado toast. But what we find is actually there's a lot of variation within the generation when it comes to their experiences, their attitudes and their perceptions for the future. A lot of that is due to race and ethnicity but also other factors that correlate with race and ethnicity, like education and immigration. And so where people are situated within the generation kind of structures a lot of their attitudes and behavior, and we see a lot of differences.

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