Katie Gillespie, age 29, is smiling.
She has a full-time job she loves. A nice place to live. Friends and family. A future.
Yet her path to adulthood, like that of virtually everyone she knows, has been uneven – more pothole than pavement.
The Great Recession got in the way.
“Getting to this place,” she said, “was different than what I thought.”
Gillespie’s friends, gathered around a lunch table, nod in understanding.
Their relationships, their work, their lives unfolded in ways they might scarcely have imagined as they stepped onto the adulthood limb a decade ago.
For Gillespie and her peers – indeed, for an estimated 60 million “millennials” generally born between 1980 and 1995 (now age 33 to 18) – the 2008 economic collapse brought an often-volcanic disruption to life patterns their parents saw as immutable reality.
Careers have been delayed. Indeed, jobs of any kind have been tough to find, potentially costing millennials hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost lifetime earnings.
The past five years rearranged their American dream.
Postponed and canceled home purchases will likely make it harder for millennials to build wealth, while significant retirement saving is out of reach. Unprecedented student debt hangs over recent graduates. Credit scores have dropped, and loans are harder to get.
“You want to be independent more than anything, but it’s nearly impossible,” said Bree Williams, a 25-year-old retail worker who teaches yoga part-time in a studio in Kansas City, Mo. “I don’t know anyone my age who finances their life independently.”
And now millennials are expected to buy health coverage they may not need, at high premiums, in order to keep insurance costs low for sicker baby boomers. Someday, millennials may be asked to pay higher Social Security taxes, even though their own retirements will almost certainly be delayed.
It’s no surprise that some now call 20-somethings a lost generation, almost unique in the nation’s history.
Most are anxious. Some are frustrated.
“Younger millennials are contemplating how exactly they’re going to make livings and find their way in the world, while our leaders argue,” University of Kansas graduate Alex Rausch recently wrote online.
But here’s the most amazing fact of all: For all of those challenges, millennials seem supremely optimistic about their futures, more upbeat than baby boomers.
“We were the first generation raised to believe we were unique and beautiful snowflakes. The approach was, ‘We can be whatever we want to be. Justice will prevail,’ ” one millennial said.
The Pew Research Center, in a major study of millennials, recently concluded: “Whatever toll a recession, a housing crisis, a financial meltdown and a pair of wars may have taken on the national psyche in the past few years, it appears to have hit the old harder than the young. … Millennials [are] confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.”
Careers, they now know, will change. Friends will move in, move out, move on. Whatever.
“Millennials are not afraid to create their own jobs,” said Jeff Fromm, a Kansas City-based advertiser and author of a book on the generation.
“Or their own world.”
If he’s right, millennials will outrace the Great Recession largely because they’ll define their lives in ways their parents and grandparents may not recognize.
The 2008 economic collapse rocketed through the job market, forcing millions out of work. At its height in October 2009, the national unemployment rate hit 10 percent.
Yet millennials, particularly those who entered the workforce as the recession hit its peak, suffered more than any other age group. In 2010, 37 percent of 18- to-29-year-olds were unemployed, the highest rate in three decades.
Baby boomers faced employment challenges, too. But many simply dropped from the workforce, living off admittedly thinner nest eggs that millennials didn’t have.
The picture has improved since the depths of the Great Recession, even for millennials. Some jobs have opened, and career paths have been restored.
But the problems of out-of-work millennials may echo through the national economy for years. When quality entry-level jobs are scarce, it takes longer for inexperienced workers to land the training and advancement their parents took for granted.
“Young people who graduate from college in a bad economy typically suffer long-term consequences,” concluded Pew, “with effects on their careers and earnings that linger as long as 15 years.”
Some economists, though not all, say the problem is made worse by boomers who didn’t leave the workforce, clogging the pipeline for entry-level positions and advancement.
Such trends suppress potential earnings growth, perhaps for decades.
“Anything that’s extreme and lasts for a while at that age is permanent, one way or another,” said nationally known demographer and author Neil Howe.
Experts say that adaptability is common among millennials, and crucial.
Williams, the retail worker and yoga instructor, believes things will get better soon.
“I still have time,” she said. “Yoga has taught me that I can do something I enjoy and make money from it.”
Best said the Great Recession has taught her important lessons about priorities – some things matter, like family and friends. Possessions? Less significant.
And ultimately, that may be the biggest impact of the Great Recession – for all its challenges, the kids are all right.