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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Census shows millennials are better educated, lower paid

Millennials! You’ve heard of them, right? Judging by the relentless media inquiry, you might suspect they are an alien race, landed from the future or outer space or Brooklyn, whom we must now dissect sociologically.

As with every successive generation, at least since the Baby Boom, there is a widespread and thumb-fingered effort to get a grip on just who these young people are. National news magazines do cover stories. Pollsters track their attitudes. The Pew Research Center offers a quiz: “How Millennial Are You?” And everyone tries to fold 73 million young people, ages 18 to 34 or thereabouts, into a single box. They’re self-absorbed. They’re pampered. They’re socially conscious. They wear pajamas in public. They’re creative and entrepreneurial. They’re this or that, or that or this.

All right already. New data from the Census tell a different kind of story about millennials – one that’s light on “selfie” shorthand and heavy on simple numbers. They tell a sobering story about this nation’s young people and the erosion of opportunity.

Simply put, millennials are getting the short end of the social contract. Young adults today are better educated and worse-paid than at any time in the past 30 years. And it’s worse in the Inland Northwest: On just about every measure in the new Census report, millennials in Spokane and Kootenai counties are falling below national averages.

On the upside, I suppose: It’s much less common for millennials to be living with their parents around here.

The Census report, “Young Adults Then and Now,” looked at several measures dating back to 1980. It compared the findings from four 10-year full Census surveys, in 1980, 1990 and 2000, with data from the annual American Community Surveys in 2009 through 2013. ACS surveys sample smaller populations.

Among the findings:

• Adjusted for inflation, the median earnings for full-time working adults age 18-34 are at their lowest point since 1980. This is true nationally, statewide and at the county level. The median annual earnings for a young working adult in 1980 were nearly $36,000, in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars. That was true nationally and in Spokane County – Washington’s statewide average was above $40,000.

In 2009-2013, that figure fell to $31,763 in Spokane County, almost $6,000 below the state average. In Kootenai County, it plunged from more than $38,000 to $29,812.

Additionally, more millennials are simply without work these days. In 1980, 67 percent of them in Spokane County were employed; that’s dropped to 63 percent. The national average declined as well. However, in Kootenai County, employment among young people increased from 63 percent to 70 percent.

• This wage decline has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in education. Nationally, more than 22 percent of millennials have a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 15.7 percent in 1980. In Spokane County, the increase has been more modest, and fewer young people are college-educated in general. But nearly 18 percent are college grads. In Kootenai County, just 14.3 percent of young adults had at least a bachelor’s degree, up 1 percentage point since 1980.

The report does not measure student loan debt, but a significant proportion of students borrows lots of money – sometimes while also failing to finish school. In other words, young adults in this economy have gone out and done what we always say people should do: Get an education. They’ve done this at great – some would say usurious – cost, often accumulating piles of debt before they even enter the workforce. And then, once employed, they are paid less. What a deal.

• Poverty has risen steeply among the young, and the rise has been particularly sharp here. Spokane County’s poverty rate among millennials has risen from 15.6 percent in 1980 to 24.1 percent now. This is much higher than the national rate (19.7) and the rate of increase is substantially higher as well. In Kootenai County, the rate rose from 14.5 percent to 20.5 percent.

• Despite this, fewer young people still live with a parent in the Inland Northwest than nationwide. Nationally, this figure has risen sharply – from 23 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2009-2013. In Spokane County, that figure went from 15 percent to 21 percent. In Kootenai County, it rose from 16.4 percent to 21.5 percent.

• The millennial generation is, unsurprisingly, increasingly diverse. Also unsurprisingly, the Inland Northwest remains much whiter than the rest of the country, generally. Forty-three percent of millennials nationwide are minorities; in Spokane County, that figure is 17 percent. In Kootenai County, it’s 9.7 percent.

• Far fewer people are serving in the military. In 1980, 12 percent of Spokane County residents aged 18-34 were veterans; today that percentage is 3.1. Kootenai County’s proportion of veterans among young people dropped from 14 percent to 3 percent.

• Far fewer young people are married. In 1980, 39 percent of young adults in Spokane County had never been married; today it’s 63 percent. In Kootenai County, it went from 30 percent to 54 percent.

Like any broad view of an entire generation, these figures do not supply a complete picture. For one thing, the breakdown of traditional pathways into adulthood – a straight line between college and career – is spurring a creative renaissance among young people that is reshaping the way they live, from work habits and expectations to a tendency to deeply question the common tradeoffs we all make between quality of life and workplace demands.

A lot of those changes will be for the better. But the trends that appear in this report – and particularly the signs of erosion between more education and better pay – suggest that some of us other generations are letting this one down.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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