Today, 50 million Americans are 18-29 years-old. Often referred to as Generation Next or the “millennials,” this generation is the most diverse in American history: 61 percent White, 19 percent Hispanic and 14 percent Black. By comparison Generation X (born between 1970-1978) is 71 percent White, 13 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Black.
More than their diversity, more than their tattoos (38 percent have at least one) and their love of everything tech (83 percent admit to sleeping near their cell phones), the economy has shaped the story of this generation as they graduate into an anemic job market with few opportunities.
Generation Opportunity, a non-profit organization that connects with young adults (18-29 years-old) through social media and “proven field tactics” for social and political activism, reported that the jobless rate for 18-29 year-olds was 12.8 percent (non-seasonally adjusted) in June, up from the 12.1 percent (NSA) unemployment rate the group reported for May. Generation Opportunity estimates that if the Labor Department included the 1.7 million young adults who stopped looking for jobs completely, the rate would be 16.9 percent, more than double the national rate (8.2 percent).
“For young Americans, through no fault of their own, their story is one of few opportunities, delayed dreams, and stalled careers,” said Paul T. Conway, Generation Opportunity president and former chief of staff for the United States Department of Labor.
Young African-Americans, 18-24 years-old, were also forced to delay their hopes and dreams as they treaded water through 2011 with a 42.6 percent underemployed rate. Generally, underemployment is a holding job beneath one’s skill level.
Whites in the same age group struggled with a 24.5 percent underemployment rate. Only 31 percent of African Americans 25-34 years old are working in their chosen field, compared to 57 percent of Whites in the same age group.
Even those lucky enough to find jobs are taking less pay and lower positions than they would if the economy were healthy, says Algernon Austin, director of Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at Economic Policy Institute.
“When people enter the labor market in horrible conditions like this one, they have lower earnings a decade, two decades into the future,” says Algernon Austin.
Diminished earning potential not only means that millennials will be less equipped to contribute to social welfare programs such as Social Security and Medicare, but they will be less equipped for the independence that many in that age group seek.
According to a joint study by D?mos, a non-partisan public policy group, and Young Invincibles, a non-profit youth organization, these horrible economic conditions have forced young Blacks to delay major life decisions at greater rates than Whites in the same age group. The D?mos-Young Invincibles study showed that young Blacks when compared to young Whites are living at home with their parents longer (38 percent to 28 percent), have delayed purchasing a home (56 percent to 44 percent) and starting families of their own (39 percent to 25 percent).
Even more troubling, Generation Opportunity estimated that 1.7 million young people have simply given up and dropped out the job market altogether. But with rising health care costs and student loan debts looming, millennials can’t afford to sit out of the job market waiting until the economy turns around.
Ja’Ron Smith, a 29 year-old policy expert working on Capitol Hill, urges millennials to “get that engine going” and take the best job available right now and stop waiting for the perfect job and dream salary, because that may be years away.
“It doesn’t always work out as cookie cutter as you want it to,” says Smith. “Especially being an African-American.”
After graduating from Howard University in 2004 and a short stint on Capitol Hill, Smith returned home to Cleveland for a job with Merrill Lynch. The quest for better job prospects lured Smith back to Washington and Capitol Hill in 2008, but even with more experience, he was forced to take a job making less money than he was making in Cleveland, just to get his foot back in the door. He was setting up meetings and running coffee orders for Capitol Hill staffers often in their early 20s, even younger than he was. It was like starting in the mailroom, the bottom all over again. But he used his time and experience there to augment his resume and to expand his network.
“When I got my foot in the door I performed,” says Smith. “But just getting my foot in the door, there was always a relationship involved.”
That’s why Conway says that it’s best for employed and unemployed millennials to seek relationships with and pick the brains of successful community leaders.
“Find out some of the challenges that they’ve dealt with,” Conway says. The Generation Opportunity president said that community leaders are often more than happy to lend guidance to young people eager to learn from their experiences. “They’re usually surprised and pleased. They’ll also give you entrance into their networks as well. It doesn’t cost a thing and is as simple as sending an e-mail or picking up a phone.”
Or today, friending someone on Facebook, following a prospective mentor on Twitter, or connecting with them through LinkedIn gives millennials unprecedented access to celebrities and professional athletes, but also to professionals in industries that they are more likely to work in. Now reaching out and touching someone is easier than ever.
Conway offers a prime example of how millennials, especially minorities, can harness that tech tsunami of social media apps, smart phones, and activism to bridge the divide between advocacy groups and an ever-elusive audience in hopes of getting work.
Because Blacks and Latinos are more likely than Whites to use their cell phones to access the Internet, use social networking sites, check e-mail, and to donate money by text, civil rights groups can utilize the tech and social media skills that millennials often bring to the table to bridge generational and digital divides to reach a younger audience.
And when those same young minorities need help climbing into their industry or finding work, Conway suggests that they stand on the shoulders of those same civil rights groups, including the National Urban League and the NAACP, organizations that have “done the hard work to advance equity and access to a better way of life.”
“What they afford is tremendous credibility and a great network,” Conway says. “You should talk to them, too. Don’t forget them.”