Are Millennials the New GI Generation?

This piece was originally published in the Los Angeles Times

It's a daunting time to be entering the workplace. Today's young adults -- like their great-grandparents eight decades earlier -- are graduating from high school and college and starting careers at a time when the American economy is shedding jobs at a record pace.

This newest adult generation, dubbed the Millennials, is known for its optimism and sense of personal confidence. But will those traits survive the new economic realities? Recent survey results suggest the answer is a resounding yes. Millennials are demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of an economic crisis, even though the downturn has affected them disproportionately.

Through the first quarter of 2009, employment for 16- to 24-year-olds dropped by 5%, the largest decline for any age cohort surveyed by Merrill Lynch. This produced the lowest employment rates for young people in nearly 40 years. And the situation isn't likely to get better soon. A survey by the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers found that employers plan to hire 22% fewer graduates this spring than last, and that, so far, less than 20% of 2009 graduates who applied for a job have one.

But Millennials have adopted a number of coping strategies to help them weather the economic maelstrom. An AP-mtvU poll found that nearly one in five undergraduates have decided to prolong their education, hoping the storm will pass. Others have enthusiastically turned to the government and nonprofit sectors to fulfill their generation's desire to serve. Teach for America, which places new graduates in low-income schools, saw a 42% increase in applications over 2008. And the recent enactment of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act will allow many more Millennials to serve at home or abroad while also providing Pell Grant-level support for their future education.

One thing Millennials are not doing is losing confidence in themselves or their government. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that 56% of Millennials were fairly satisfied with the way things were going for them financially, a significantly greater degree of optimism than aging baby boomers expressed in the same survey (46%). Two-thirds of Millennials told Pew survey researchers that they approved of the way President Obama was handling the economy, with only 5% saying his economic policies have made things worse. And although 32% of undergraduates at four-year colleges told Edison Media Research that financial worries have increased the stress they're under, 75% of Millennials expressed confidence that Obama was doing the right things to fix the economy.

This type of relentless optimism and faith in collective action in the face of hardship is typical of civic generations such as the Millennials. And judging by history, their attitudes will serve them well. Their great-grandparents, the GI Generation, learned to make do with less as they entered adulthood in the 1930s and then went on to defeat fascism in World War II and build the strongest economy the world has known. As young Millennials absorb the lessons of America's greatest economic downturn since the 1930s, their determination to succeed, like that of the GI Generation before them, will be the source of the economic rejuvenation that in all likelihood will accompany their full entry into America's economic life.