I am a millennial. I am among the generation of people that, according to PEW research is the most educated generation to date. 29% of millennial men, and 36% of millennial women have at least a bachelors degree; and many more have partial or unfinished post-secondary schooling. Educating institutions offer many more fields of study today than they used to. Additionally, a robust federal loan program, scholarships, grants, and private lenders ensure that many can secure money for higher education as soon as they graduate high school. My generation has access to more college degrees, more fields of study, and more ways to receive funding for college than ever before.
It would seem believable that, due to these conditions, the millennials will inevitably end up smarter and more successful than previous generations; but if more education is supposed to be making millennials more successful, then why is it that millennials are living at home with their parents 50% more often than the previous generation? Why then, despite being a major part of the workforce, most millennials are unable or unwilling to purchase a home? Why is it that millennials between the ages 25 and 34 earn 20% less than their Boomer parents did at the same age? Why is it that $1.1 trillion of the total $3.6 trillion dollars of consumer debt is held by the 21-34 age group? Why is it that 52%of the 21 to 34 age group, when surveyed, expressed worries of defaulting on any loan over the next 12 months? These questions aren’t easy to answer without multi-varied analysis, but there is one factor that stands out above the rest: student loan debt.
According to CNBC, the average student debt for the older millennials (30-39 years) is $34,000 on average and affects around 12 million people, whereas the under age 30 demographic has around 24 million people affected by student debt amounts above $22,000 on average. This means that a staggering one out of ten Americans rack up student loan debt amounts over $22,000 before ever entering their career field. Compounding the issue is
that most college graduates aren’t working in the field which they went to college for and are often earning too little to unbury themselves from their immense debt. The real kicker (and something the post-millennials should be aware of) is according to a survey done by Accenture, over 50% of all college graduates say that the careers they are working in don’t require a degree what-so-ever. That’s one out of two college grads who wasted their time and money getting a degree they are never going to use.
Adding to the college dilemma is the fact that tuition at public universities has more than doubled since 1984, even after adjusting for inflation. Despite this, college tuition has become much more accessible than it was at its advent. This is due to the ease with which one can borrow from the various federal student loan programs. In 1958, under the National Defense Education Act, student loans were only offered to those studying Science, Engineering, or Education. Now, however, you can borrow money for any major at any university or college. You can also borrow for private, for-profit schools, which generally offer certification or licensure, rather than an official degree. Kids graduating high school often jump right into borrowing for school without ever considering a much cheaper trade school, or simply joining the work force and gaining the much-needed experience most careers demand. They very often sidle themselves with massive debt, even before figuring out what they want to do with their lives, or whether they need a degree to do it. Our society pressures kids to go to college as if it’s the only way to succeed.
The current axiom that our youth must take on immense debt to get a college degree, no matter what their particular circumstances, is destructive for millennials in the long run, especially in regard to retirement. Simply put, generating substantial amounts of debt early on dramatically affects your ability to retire. Let’s say you spend your 20’s getting a degree in a field where skill and experience are far more requisite. Once you graduate you will spend, on average, $350 per month on your student loans for the foreseeable future. While you were busy growing debt, someone else worked their way up in the same field, saved $350 per month, and acquired valuable experience along the way. If you read my last article, then you will know that a dollar saved now
is worth much more than a dollar saved later, assuming you invest and grow your money to beat inflation. If you spend half of your adult life in severe debt, you may have very low chances of retiring on time, if at all. Not to mention, the wonders of compounding interest are working against you, instead of for you.
Many of the people in my generation are faced with the harsh reality of attempting to overcome a seemingly insurmountable mountain of debt, acquired by following the well-intended advice of people who still believe college is like it was in the past; back when it cost half or a third as much, in today’s dollars, for young professionals to acquire a specific skill or knowledge necessary to their career path. While reasonable and legitimate fields of study still exist, and should be pursued, they are awash in institutions that, for the price of one young person’s future, offer a lot of useless degrees or tack on pricey
“free elective” classes which are anything but free and elective. Despite this, hope is not lost for those of us millennials who fell into the college debt trap. If we get serious about retirement, set some realistic goals and make the necessary sacrifices, we can still retire at a reasonable age. It won’t be easy, however, and it requires immediate action. See my last article for more insight.
As for those in the post-millennial generation, who are beginning to graduate high school now, I have a simple question: How can you ensure that you are not wrecking your chances of retirement by borrowing frivolously? For that I have a few, more specific answers:
1. Make a plan, have a direction, and know what you want to do with your life: Many of us feel unsure about our plans, and it can be paralyzing; but there is a way to break out of that paralysis. It starts with taking yourself more seriously and discovering yourself. Spend some time alone, away from the distractions of the internet. Begin to write in a journal. Talk to parents, siblings, and friends regarding what they notice about your personality, good and bad. Develop some strong insights into your own unique and individual temperaments, strengths, and weaknesses. Find out what success is for you specifically. Define it, in words, on paper. Do all of this, meaningfully, and you will have a much easier time deciding what career and/or lifestyle fits you. To put it simply, don’t make major life-altering decisions for yourself, without knowing who you are first.
2. Understand what education you require for your career: After getting to know yourself and developing a vision of your future, you can decide whether college is required for you to achieve what you want. If you want to work for NASA, or study micro-organisms in a lab at the CDC, then you may want to go get a degree. However, if you are leaning toward learning a trade, like an electrician, a plumber, or a violinist, then you may not need a four-year degree and $30,000 in loan debt. Just find a job or an internship in the field you want, get the necessary licensing, and get to work.
3. Try to Avoid loans: If you do end up college bound, assess whether you need or want to get the degree from a pricey high-end university, or if a community college will suffice. You may want to look into the field you’re planning on getting a degree in to see if it has a growing and healthy work force and that the pay is commensurate with the cost of the education. When paying for college, utilize every grant, scholarship, relative, friend, and piggy bank to help avoid taking out loans for as much of the cost as possible.
In conclusion, my post-millennial friends, I want you to succeed. You are the only one who has control of whether you will spend your 70’s and 80’s working or sipping pineapple juice on a beautiful sandy beach. You likely won’t win the lottery, find a genie in a bottle or discover rare-earth minerals buried in your backyard. Good luck generation Y, and Godspeed.