Unemployed Millennials: Don't Blame Helicopter Parents Just Yet

Don’t be too quick to judge those helicopter parents—research shows that the economic deck is stacked against the Millennial Generation

In 2012, 36 percent of America’s young adults aged 18 to 31—the millennial generation—were living at home with their parents, the highest percentage in at least four decades and a number that was exacerbated by the Great Recession. In the view of University of Minnesota sociologist Jeylan T. Mortimer, though, the recession deepened economic trends that were already underway—and that might not change any time soon.

“The image of families in the media includes berating and ridiculing parents for not letting go of their children—the term ‘helicopter parents’ is sometimes used—by encouraging them to live at home, and accept a lot of money from them, and so on. But there are real challenges facing young people
in becoming educated, which is becoming a longer process and more costly than in the past, and difficulties in getting jobs and establishing themselves and, later, forming families.

“All of these demographic trends in changes to adulthood have made parents more responsible to children for a longer period of time. Parents are trying to help their children to build human capital—rationally, rather than through some kind of pathological dependency.”

45 percent of unemployed millennials lived with their parents in 2012. 63 percent of millennials had jobs in 2012, compared to 70 percent of young people the same age in 2007.

“One thing that’s different after the recent recession is that we haven’t seen a quick rebound afterward. In the most recent data you see greater youth unemployment related to the recession.

“But a lot of the changes that are making life more difficult for college graduates and for other youth are long-term trends and not the recession. There’s the decline of manufacturing—in the 1950’s, you could get a relatively well-paying job with a high-school education, and now you need at least college. It’s becoming more difficult for young people to establish themselves.”

Mortimer and other researchers tracked a group of young people in St. Paul from the time they were 14 until they were in their late 30s, gathering data on their transition into adulthood.

“This cohort graduated from high school in 1991, and they were almost universally able to get jobs when they were in high school. They worked part-time, and much of my study was focused on the impacts of this early work experience.

“Today it’s much harder for teenagers to get jobs. Employers look for experience—this is a long-term trend, the decline of employment among teenagers.

“Youth [used to] say things such as, “I have all these activities in school, and my employer has to adjust to my schedule.” That’s the way it was, but now teenagers are facing competition from adult workers who are unemployed or who have low-paying jobs that they have to supplement.”

“The median age of the fast-food worker is 29. Teenagers aren’t doing these jobs, it’s adults who have all the expenses of living independently.

“The fact of the matter is that young people aren’t getting the kind of vocational experiences to help them sort through what they would like to be, and to become work-ready—the routines of the workplace, how you should behave and so forth.

“The youth who are college graduates are the most advantaged in the youth labor market, even though their employment rates are lower than they were prior to the recession. Still, if you look at high-school graduates, or those with associate degrees, they’re faring far worse. There’s so much attention to college graduates, but what about the people who don’t go to college?”