Millennials stand on shakier financial ground than older generations

The Census Bureau finds a host of financial challenges that millennials face but previous generations did not

California's millennials experience greater unemployment, earn less money and are far more likely to still be living with their parents than young adults from earlier generations, according to a new comprehensive analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Officials examined how young adults ages 18 through 34 have fared in the aftermath of the Great Recession and found economic distress both nationally and in California.

Only 62% of young adults in California were employed in the last five years, down from 71% a generation ago. For those who worked, millennials saw median earnings slide back from 1980, falling from about $37,000 to $35,700 in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars.

A generation ago, 14.7% of young adults in California were living in poverty; now it's at 18.6%.

What it means to be a young adult also is changing. More than 1 in 3 are living with a parent, up from 1 in 5 in the previous generation.

Holding off on marriage has become the norm, with more than 2 out of 3 young Californians never married, when in 1980, more than half had already been married.

California's never-married percentage is higher than many other states, said demographer Jonathan Vespa of the Census Bureau, which published Young Adults: Then and Now using the American Community Survey's 2009-2013 data, released Thursday.

"Let's say you're a kid out of college and your first job, you're getting paid $40,000 a year," said Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. "You want to live in a safe neighborhood in Los Angeles, with decent access to jobs, transit, et cetera. You're looking at $1,400 to $1,500 a month in rent. So that means you're paying $18,000 a year out of your $40,000 just in rent."

Add up student debt, taxes, car payments and gas — "You put that all together, it's really hard to save," he said.

The plummeting marriage rate can be partly explained by more economic anxiety or longer time spent in higher education. But it could also be a generational, cultural shift, where millennials are not as eager to wed quickly.

Another reason could be pragmatic. While a growing percentage of women have college degrees, men are not keeping up, hurting their prospects for jobs and potential spouses.

"The thing women focus on [is] men who have full-time employment," Green said, citing other published research. "And it's hard to have full-time employment now when you don't have a college degree."

The delay in getting young adults on sound financial footing could have steep consequences. Nationally, most millennials are living paycheck to paycheck as heavy debt, particularly student loans, weighs them down, according to the Wells Fargo Millennial Study.

"We're not seeing as many people forming their own households at the ages that they used to," said Bill Schooling, chief of demographics research for the California Department of Finance.

Going to college for an advanced degree to be competitive in an information-based economy requires more moving around and more student debt.

"The millennials are coming into a different economy than, say, the baby boomers did," said Jerry Nickelsburg, a professor of economics at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. "It requires a different skill set. It requires a different training, so they're experiencing something different than we've seen before."

Some experts say the data from Thursday's report might give a skewed impression of how millennials are faring today.

The 1980 census came right before the U.S. economy went into a deep recession, while the most recent survey came during and after the Great Recession, said Dowell Myers, USC demography and urban planning professor.

Additionally, lumping 18- to 34-year-olds in a single demographic group is too broad a range, Myers said. At this moment in time, there just happens to be more young millennials, closer to the age of 21, who are at a different point in life than older millennials in their 30s. That, he said, skews the data to a younger subset who are "more likely to be with their parents and not on their own."

Repeating the analysis a decade later would cover many of the same millennials, still younger than 35 but probably with better jobs and perhaps married, Myers said.

The Census Bureau data also showed how this generation is becoming more diverse. Two out of 3 millennials in California reported their race as something other than white, a dramatic rise from 1980 when only about 1 in 3 did. Nationally, about 2 out of 5 Americans reported a race other than white, up from 1 in 5 in 1980.

Today's young adults also are more likely to be bilingual. In California, nearly half of millennials reported speaking a language other than English at home, about double the percentage of young adults who said so in 1980.

rosanna.xia@latimes.com
Twitter: @RosannaXia

ron.lin@latimes.com
Twitter: @ronlin

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