Millennial generation is persistently optimistic

Graduates wave to friends and family before the start of the UCLA ceremony. Despite facing one of the worst economies in generations, new college graduates and their peers are optimistic about their futures.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Troubling unemployment. Soaring debt. Global turmoil. To many, it looks like a grim future.

But the dour economy didn’t faze Kim Davis, 22, who graduated from UCLA in June and confidently predicted a “really bright future” for herself and her classmates.

Davis was glowing on graduation day, like so many young adults around her. Researchers say such optimism is especially striking among young adults of her generation, often dubbed millennials, as they weather some of the worst financial conditions in decades.


Though young adults are less upbeat than they were around the turn of the millennium, their hopes remain high.

“It’s hard to imagine a time when there was this level of optimism among a group so hard hit by economic conditions,” said Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project. “In the face of the Great Recession, it’s pretty phenomenal.”

As joblessness among young adults hit record highs, a whopping 88% of people ages 18 to 34 said they had enough money or would have enough in the future to meet their long-term financial goals, Pew found last year.

Even among those who said they were unemployed and financially strapped, 75% said they would someday have enough money. Overall, nearly three out of four believed they would achieve their goals in life — or already had — which was slightly more than among older adults.

Their elders are less hopeful for them. Fifty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 thought young people today were unlikely to have a better life than their parents, compared with 42% of those ages 18 to 34, Gallup found in a poll six months ago.

Over the last two decades, people in their 50s and 60s have tended to be less upbeat about the chances of their children living as well as they do, according to data from the General Social Survey, a long-running study funded by the National Science Foundation.


But this optimism gap had widened, last year becoming bigger than ever in polls stretching back to 1994. Gallup and Pew surveys reveal similar patterns.

Michelle Woody, 25, said her worried parents prodded her to take a temporary job as she neared graduation at Cal State Long Beach.

“They were in the mind-set of, ‘Take any job that pays, because there won’t be any jobs at all,’” Woody said. But she thought, “Why settle? Those positions would suck the life out of me.” She held out, waiting for a job that she preferred at Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

Experts say millennials’ upbeat attitude sets them apart from the baby boomers, born in the aftermath of World War II, who hit adulthood during the tumult and disillusionment of the 1960s and ‘70s. Pew earlier dubbed boomers “the Gloomiest Generation” because they long have long rated their lives more poorly than do older adults.

In several surveys, millennial optimism also appears to outpace Generation X, born in the late 1960s and 19’70s, who saw divorce surge and the culture wars explode.

Millennials, born in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, watched the world go digital and the World Trade Center towers fall. They are more likely to have gone to college, less likely to have gone to war and less likely to have wed than their elders were at the same age, Pew analyses show.


Fewer say they belong to a particular faith, yet they are about as likely to pray as were twentysomethings in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Tattoos and piercings are more common among them; owning a gun is less so. Most have slept next to their cellphones.

Their optimism is linked, in part, to attitudes instilled by parents and teachers who told them they could do anything, researchers say.

Confidence “has been hard-wired into their DNA,” said Sharalyn Hartwell, executive director of Magid Generational Strategies, a unit of the Frank N. Magid Associates consulting firm. “It’s not that they’re young and dumb. They were taught, ‘Believe in yourselves.”’

More educated than their elders at the same age, many feel they are actually in better shape than their parents were at this point in their lives, the General Social Survey shows.

Among them is Mario Nuñez, who lives with his family and works in the San Fernando Valley to save money for college. The words of his father push him forward.

“He told me, ‘Don’t give up on things,’” said Nuñez, 22, whose father emigrated from Guatemala and now works for a wire transfer service. “You’ll make your future the way you want it to be.”


Some millennials say they keep up hope because there is little point in moping — a sign that optimism may be a survival strategy. This generation has also witnessed enough change to assure them things can change again, making them more willing to look beyond their current woes, said David D. Burstein, 24, author of “Fast Future,” about the impact of the Millennials.

“Twitter used to be something that a bird does — it became something that could take down governments,” Burstein said. Seeing changes like that, “We think, ‘A year from now, my reality could be totally different.’”

Millennials have also been happier with the way things are going in the country than have older Americans, more at ease with societal changes such as same-sex and interracial marriage, increased immigration and the rise of single motherhood, the Pew study found.

“The way I see politics changing gives me a more hopeful outlook,” Woody said. “Immigration reform, gay marriage — I see it as a change in consciousness.”

Millennial optimism is not without its skeptics, however. Some experts say the generation’s hope could be an illusion, veiling the erosion of job security or fueling risky overconfidence.

Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me,” pointed to her research showing that young adults are more likely to see themselves as “above average” than young people in decades past. The San Diego State professor said she regularly talks to corporate managers who complain that young workers are unrealistic about how fast they’ll advance.


Burstein said he does not believe millennials are deluded. There are signs that they know things are difficult: Nearly half think they will have to keep working indefinitely, a Telefonica-Financial Times survey of U.S. millennials found. Instead, Burstein argued, they define success differently from older Americans.

Despite daunting levels of joblessness, adults ages 18 to 29 were more likely than any other group except the elderly to say they were living better than their parents did at their age, the General Social Survey found last year.

The elderly, in turn, may be an example of how such positivity can play out. Economist and historian Neil Howe described the generation that emerged from the Great Depression and World War II as “almost pathologically positive” — attitudes that later clashed with their baby-boomer offspring.

The parents felt, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it at all,” Howe said. “Well, boomers had plenty of negative things to say — and insisted on saying them.”