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The Average Millennial Is Nothing Like The Stereotypes

Data shows that despite common stereotypes, the average American millennial does not live in a city. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Data shows that despite common stereotypes, the average American millennial does not live in a city. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The stereotypical millennial is highly educated and lives in a city, right? Wrong. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average American 29-year-old did not graduate from a four-year university and is living in a suburb. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic discusses the numbers with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

Read Derek Thompson’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Average 29-Year-Old.”

Interview Highlights: Derek Thompson

The stereotype that millennials are in their 20s and living in major cities is incorrect?

“It’s not correct, and I think one of the reasons that the stereotype lives is that there are so many people like me, people in the media, that concentrate in places like New York and Washington D.C. where so many media jobs are and they look around and say well I’ll just describe this generation by turning my neck and describing what I see around me, but it requires a deeper look at surveys, governmental surveys, to see exactly what is the average 29-year-old in the United States today.”

What is it?

“Well, it’s not the college graduate barista, it’s not the pampered tech employee urbanite. The average 29-year-old has not graduated from college. Thirty percent of 29-year-olds have a bachelor’s degree, so 70 percent do not. The vast majority completed some college, they started and left, they got an associate’s degree, but quite notable, this being one of if not the most diverse generations in U.S. history, 80 percent of Black and Hispanic 29-year-olds do not have a bachelor’s degree. The last, really important point on education is that you have this huge diploma gap opening up between men and women. By 29, a third of women have received a bachelor’s degree compared to just one quarter of men.”

What is the typical millennial job?

“The typical millennial career is not in a fixed state. It is more aspirational than descriptive. Jobs are still quite temporary things for twenty-somethings. The average American has more than seven jobs before he or she turns 29 and about a third of those can last less than six months. This is one of the reasons, I think, why the median income for 29-year-olds is quite low, $35,000, and so I think this suggests that it is very difficult for this group, despite the fact that it is more educated than previous generations. To really get a foothold in this economy, they’re still trying to figure out their best path forward.”

On the stereotype that millennials get married later and have children later

“That much is true, but the marriage story is complicated. The most striking stat about the decline of marriage is that overall, in 1960, a little over 80 percent of upper twenty-somethings, 25 to 29-year-olds, 84 percent of them were married. Fifty years later, that percentage was cut in half, almost 42 percent of this group was married, but it’s not the case that they’re all single. In fact a majority of 29-year-olds are either married or living full time with a partner, so-called cohabitating. So one thing that you see is a lot of relationships that used to be marriages now are something else, a cohabitation, a partnership and so it’s not so much that all of these young people are living alone, a lot of them are living with partners, but putting off marriage and children.”

Where are they living?

“For every 100 Americans between 25 and 29 that move into a dense city, 124 are leaving those cities and moving into the suburbs, either because they can’t afford that city or because they are getting married and they want a house and a plot of land for themselves. It should be said, I think, that suburbs come in all shapes and sizes and just because it is true that most young people are moving to the suburbs, it doesn’t mean that they’re living in the sort of exurbs that we saw growing in the early 2000s across the southwest. A lot of them are living in what retailers now call ‘urban light environments,’ sort of suburbs that are quite close to the downtown but nonetheless clearly are not downtown.”

Are they homeowners?

“No. We’re coming off of this housing boom, 44 percent of 29-year-olds owned a house at the peak of the sort of housing crush, but today it’s just 35 percent, so it has declined quite a bit. More actually for this age group, late twenty-somethings and early thirty-somethings than any other group. I think one thing that you’re seeing is we talked about how career is harder to begin. If you don’t have a career, if you don’t have a high, steady income, and we’ve seen that credit is in short of supply now, it’s just difficult getting your life started and buying a house and things like that.”


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