“Entitled. Lazy. Lacking social skills.” Cold-blooded killers of yet another industry every month. Are Millennials really lazy, though? No more than with any other generation.

Yeah, Millennials buy things they can’t afford, don’t vote very much, and have anxiety issues induced by social media. But they also pay way more for education, which earns them 25% lower wages than their parents enjoyed—all to build careers in the face of higher living costs than the last 50 years.

Millennials: this one’s for you.

Student debt is higher than ever

Before we get into it, the research says that getting a bachelor’s degree is still very much worth it. Please keep that in mind while you read.

But it’s hard to pay down a debt when the job market is over-saturated with people equally or more qualified than you. It’s even harder to pay down that debt when it’s more than twice has high as it was 20 years ago. Student debt has become a dumpster fire in a bubble that’s bound to pop. In fact, student debt grew by 511% between 1999 and 2011 alone, if you can believe it.

An orange bar graph showing the average student loan debt in the United States rising between 1985 and 2014.

As of 2018, the average student spends $30,000 USD on college per year (tuition, books, rent, food, utilities, and so on). That’s $120,000 USD over the course of a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

That’s insane.

But you know the craziest part? The average student debt is just $29,800 USD. That means students and their families actually budget and pay down three-quarters of those degrees by graduation. The family unit, at least, is hauling it to pay off that debt, if not the students themselves.

But that debt is still so, so much higher than it was for previous generations, including Gen X.

You’re not likely to pay down $120,000 on your own—not just by working summers and then some part-time work on minimum wage, anyway. Even in places with recently raised minimum wages, like Ontario’s hike to $15 CAD ($11.25 USD) per hour, it isn’t enough to pay off student loans in a reasonable amount of time.

Let’s take a quick look at the numbers, working for $11.25 per hour instead of America’s $7.25 minimum wage (just to make a point). That works out to be:

  1. $90 for an 8-hour day
  2. $450 for a single work week
  3. $1,935 per month (4.3 weeks)
  4. $23,400 per year (52 weeks)

That doesn’t include Federal taxes (a little over 11% on average, in this scenario), or state-level tax, if that applies to you. It doesn’t include living expenses either, which would eat up 80% of that those funds even on a lean budget.

Even if you didn’t spend a dime on anything except saving for your education and related living expenses, it would take 6 years working full-time to cover the costs. 

A line graph showing inflation-adjusted entry-level wages for recent college graduates between 1979 and 2013.

Realistically, you’ll need to live on that money as you save up in most cases, unless you can swing living at home for 6 or more years after high school without spending a penny.

Are Millennials really lazy because of this? They aren’t asking for a free pass. They just want affordable education.

Entry-level job requirements are higher than ever

My first boss lamented how “students can’t do anything these days.”

But when he graduated in the 1970s no one had to possess specific knowledge like Excel or WordPress. Personal computers hadn’t even become widely popular yet (he should know, because he made his name distributing them).

New grads are expected to be professionals right out of the gate, which is why “professional” programs like engineering, nursing, marketing, and supply chain management have become so popular.

That’s because entry-level jobs aren’t really “entry-level” anymore. It’s no coincidence that some companies will string along graduates for several years with unpaid internships before offering them an “entry-level” job with a salary lower than their actual experience should command. The workplace is changing so quickly that spending 2-4 years preparing for a single occupation isn’t always the answer, either (even engineers aren’t immune to unemployment).

After being let go from my first job, I had to freelance and network for 9 months before I found a second job for a sort-of-entry-sort-of-mid-tier job. I had to market myself as a professional with two years of experience, half of that being unique as a freelancer (making my own website, managing my own time, finances, and clientele). I grew my professional skills in that time, but it took all of that to get a role just marginally above entry level at a marketing agency after 9 months of searching.

We shouldn’t be surprised at how tough it is to get a foot in the door when there are 600% more bachelor degree holders in the US today compared to 1970. Anyone razzing Millennials for not getting jobs when they’re legitimately trying belies a deep ignorance.

An orange bar graph showcasing bachelor degree holders in the United States over the age of 25, comparing 1970 and 2016.

Housing costs are higher than ever

Baby Boomers enjoyed the post-war economy, affordable education, and a stable housing market when they entered it. Then they enjoyed the unrealistic rise of real estate prices on their homes, and never moved out. That’s not hard work. That’s sheer dumb luck.

Gen Xers got in on the housing market before it became ridiculously bad, but hell, they earned it—they’re juggling finances for aging parents and college kids at the same time, these days.

But you can’t alienate an entire generation from the housing market, let rent prices get out of control, and then belittle that generation for not being able to afford housing at the same age (on top of crippling college costs, lower wages, and a crazy flooded job market).

A green bar chart showing inflation in key markets against college textbooks between 1978 and 2014.

Baby Boomers didn’t work any harder than anyone else. They just happened to grow up in the single most economically prosperous and stable period in the last 1,500 years of human history. Their grandparents fought in the First World War. Their parents fought in the Second World War and the Korean War.

But Baby Boomers went to affordable colleges and bought houses.

Suburban sprawl isn’t the norm for society. It wasn’t even the norm for North American cities until the 1950s. It just seems that way because Baby Boomers grew up with the phenomenon, and they passed that assumption down to the rest of us. (P.S. Read The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs if you want to learn more about it).

That includes the entire suburban expansion in North America, including those overpriced duplexes and “condo apartments” you still can’t afford if you’re under 40.

Are Millennials really lazy for leaving restrictive work environments?

Let’s get this out of the way here and now: Baby Boomers job hopped just as much in their 20s as Millennials ever have, holding an average of 5.5 jobs between ages 18-24 and 4.5 jobs from 25-34. That comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so feel free to let antagonistic Boomers try to deny it.

Bar graph showing that Baby Boomers held an average of 5.5 jobs between the ages of 18-24, as well as holding an average of 4.5 jobs between 25-34.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, and Earnings Growth: Results From a National Longitudinal Study”

Even though Deloitte’s study found that many Millennials plan to leave their jobs within two years (not necessarily going through with it, though), that’s about the same rate as Baby Boomers hopped jobs when they were younger.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s get to the real issue: people don’t job hop because they’re aimless and ungrateful, necessarily.

They leave because they need to take new job offers just to grow their salaries and job opportunities at a decent rate. A lot of companies don’t pay young people like they used to, and wages definitely stagnate. In fact, entry-level wages have stagnated for some time, which is widely accepted as an economic factor that pushes employees to job hunt. Are Millennials really lazy for seeking higher earning power?

Let’s look at that chart again.

A line graph showing inflation-adjusted entry-level wages for recent college graduates between 1979 and 2013.

Case in point: My first job started at $21,000 USD in 2015 with a Master’s Degree. I signed a contract to move up to $25,000 in 3 months if my performance was good, and then to $27,000 if my performance held after that. I ended up running the company informally for my absentee boss, and there were still no benefits included at any point of that year-long work experience.

That boss also tried to go back on the second raise even after I kept everything together for him for 6 months.

In my second job, my new boss avoided annual reviews, and by extension, conversations related to raises. He hired someone else with a similar resume 12 months after hiring me, but paid that person $5,000 more. The new guy left soon afterward, but it hardly mattered—his work was half as good as mine, but he got more money anyway.

The message was clear: many employers don’t want to pay for raises.

That boss didn’t give me a reasonable raise until he stumbled across my updated resume on Indeed (a happy accident). Then a recruiter tapped me on the shoulder with a salary that represented nearly 300% more money than the belated raise.

My immediate supervisor at that second job (not the owner) worked there for 4.5 years and made less than what I had been offered for my third job. I could have worked at job #2 for another 3 years and still never made what I started earning in job #3.

I took the offer, obviously. Anyone would, including those old bosses of mine.

So, yeah, Millennials job hop. The older generations running their companies don’t give junior employees much of a choice these days. They say “that’s business,” and it is—so no one should be surprised when younger employees turn it around on the employers who withhold compensation in the first place. According to that Deloitte study, Baby Boomers hopped jobs just as much as Millennials do today. It’s simply hypocritical to call Millennials “job hoppers” on several levels.

So, are Millennials really lazy? When you consider the reasons why they get a bad rap, it doesn’t really make sense:

  • They job-hopped the same amount as Baby Boomers did at the same age.
  • They’ve been priced out of the real estate market.
  • Their post-secondary education costs far more than it did for past generations.
  • It’s harder to get a job than ever before.

Millennials aren’t any lazier than previous generations. They just got the short end of the stick.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Founder of the Employed Historian, Andrew entered the working world with two history degrees and zero technical knowledge. Then he worked on those technical skills and discovered something profound about the liberal arts. By day he's a professional search engine optimization specialist and content marketer at Webb Content.
Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Founder of the Employed Historian, Andrew entered the working world with two history degrees and zero technical knowledge. Then he worked on those technical skills and discovered something profound about the liberal arts. By day he's a professional search engine optimization specialist and content marketer at Webb Content.

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