Generation wait? Understanding the millennials

Time magazine millennials
You or someone you know?

Julia Stockdale-Otarola, OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate

Millennials are “lazy, entitled narcissists”.

No, millennials are multi-taskers, tech-savvy and confident.

The media has offered various contradictory views regarding the characteristics that best define the millennial generation and the labour situation they face.

So, who are they? Simply put, the term millennial refers to anyone born between the 1980s and the early-mid 2000s. No doubt you know some of them well. They might be a family member or perhaps a colleague. Maybe you’re one yourself. I’m a millennial.

And what do we know about their struggle to enter the labour market? There is growing concern that millennials are a “scarred generation”. That is to say that today’s poor labour market performance and un- and underemployment will negatively impact future labour market outcomes. In other words, this means that if you were to graduate without a job or in a low-wage job you are more likely to be affected by unemployment and lower earnings later in your career.

Following the 2008 crisis, youth, particularly those with low educational qualifications, have struggled more than adults to bounce back. Between 2007 and 2012 the number of employed youth fell by more than 7.5 million in OECD countries. Indeed, youth increasingly confront inactivity, precarious work, under-employment – and youth unemployment remains above its pre-crisis levels in numerous OECD countries. The term NEET (not in employment, education or training) continues to come up in the headlines. Approximately 22 million young people are NEET and more than one in five young people aged 15-24 have been out of work for more than 12 months. The persistence of this problem can also be seen when the NEET population is broken down by age, as most NEETs in OECD countries are in their 20s, with 45% of NEETs aged between 25 and 29. Those who are able to find work also voice concerns regarding job quality. Unpaid internships, short-term contracts and temporary unemployment seem to be the norm. This offers youth limited stability and social protection. Even highly-educated youth are more likely to take temporary positions, resulting in under-employment and contributing to the exacerbation of labour market segmentation in some countries.

So how are millennials coping? Despite varying situations within and across countries, one theme persists in my discussions with other young professionals and students. Millennials are worried about their futures and those of their families. Uncertainty is the mot du jour. After checking all the boxes: continuing education, getting good grades, volunteering, interning, working, and being involved in student life, they’ve joined the ‘real world’. But for many it isn’t living up to expectations. The future seems burdened with crippling student debt, little to no savings, and you can forget about pensions in retirement. Millennials have observed how Generation X struggles to make ends meet and achieve work-life balance. And so, they question what’s in store for them. Increasingly risk adverse, many are delaying major life decisions. Buying a home, going back to school or having children just doesn’t seem worth it or even possible… At least not yet.

But millennials aren’t alone. Real wages have slowed in 25 out of the 30 OECD countries which had available data and are declining in more than one third of countries. Though unemployment is slowly declining, it remains high at above pre-crisis levels in the OECD. Many workers believe the labour market offers minimal wage growth, lacking opportunities for training and progression, excessive overtime hours, and limited flexibility. Millennials and young parents are simply the most dissatisfied. To ease the strain workers are seeking greater flexibility, paid parental leave, and onsite or subsidized child care. Changes to the employment contract, an ageing and an increasingly multigenerational workforce, and changing family dynamics mean we need to rethink policy. We need better options.

Many governments have made significant efforts to support youth. The OECD has an Action Plan for Youth and youth employment initiatives are sprouting around the globe. The European Union has made youth employment a priority with the Youth Guarantee, committing member states to offering all NEETs training or work within a few months of graduation or becoming unemployed. Individual states have also invested in youth to facilitate school-to-work transitions. All these efforts play an important role in improving the current situation but there’s still more work to do. Pension, family and labour policies can all have an impact to provide greater stability for youth throughout their careers and ensure that the challenges of today do not dictate the future.

We need to work together to support policies that consider all generations and move towards greater intergenerational solidarity. So strike up a conversation with your grandparents, your colleagues, or that Master-educated barista – there’s something to learn from everyone.

Useful links

The OECD Skills Outlook 2015 focuses on “Youth, Skills and Employability”

OECD Better Life Index

OECD’s How’s Life? 2015: Measuring Well-being

Local Implementation of Youth Guarantees: Emerging Lessons from European Experiences


OECD work on youth

OECD Action Plan Youth

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