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Why All Those Criticisms About Millennials Aren't Necessarily Fair

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, are millennials really as bad as some people say? Cardiff Garcia and Sally Herships from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money say, maybe not.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Earlier generations have sometimes labeled millennials as lazy, coddled, afraid of traditional adult milestones like marriage and kids and buying a house. But that is a bum rap, and one economist has made it a personal mission to explain why.

GRAY KIMBROUGH: I'm Gray Kimbrough, and I'm an economist at American University.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Gray has been referred to by The Washington Post as a serial millennial myth debunker.

GARCIA: Millennials are young adults who are now between the ages of roughly 22 to 38. And the place we're going to start - the place we have to start - is with the economy. The data show that the economy really has been worse for millennials than it has been for people in prior generations when they were young adults.

HERSHIPS: Gray looked at the average amount that the U.S. economy has grown in the 10 years after each member of a generation reached the age of 18.

GARCIA: Yeah, and here's what he found. In the 10 years after millennials reached the age of 18, the economy has grown by an average of about 18%. For both Gen X and the boomers, it grew by about twice that much when members of those generations turned 18.

HERSHIPS: Young adults in general had steadily been moving out of their parents' houses at later and later ages, starting in the '60s and '70s. But that delay started increasing by a lot around the year 2000, when the first millennials were around 18 or 19 years old.

KIMBROUGH: Young women and men in their 20s are more likely to live with their parents now than any time since World War II.

GARCIA: And you can see a similar trend when it comes to young adults living in their own homes as opposed to renting. Starting in the middle of the last decade, after the U.S. housing market collapsed and dragged the rest of the economy down with it, there was a huge decline in the share of people in their 20s who lived in a home that was owned rather than a home that they were renting.

HERSHIPS: Gray says, actually, the most likely reason that young adults have been living at home longer and putting off buying houses is the economy. The age when young adults get married is getting higher, but that has been a steady trend since the 1960s. Plus, a much higher share of millennials go to college and graduate than people from earlier generations. And so the amount of college debt has climbed a lot since the middle of the last decade, which also makes it harder for young adults to afford houses.

GARCIA: So take all these things in combination, and you can see that the reason young adults have put off these milestones, like buying houses and having kids, does not match the stereotype of the lazy and self-absorbed millennial.

HERSHIPS: And if you want more proof, Gray is not finished busting millennial myths. There's one that really annoys him. It's the myth that says millennials are disloyal to their employers, hopping from job to job, unable to stay put in one place. But this is also nonsense. Gray says young adults now switch jobs at much lower rates than Gen Xers and baby boomers did when they were young.

GARCIA: And there is an optimistic, even hopeful, story to tell about millennials. This is more speculative, but with more college degrees than prior generations, young adults now have set themselves up to be more productive in the economy for the long term. And because they endured the financial crisis 10 years ago at a young, impressionable age, it's also possible that millennials are going to be less likely to inflate a big housing market bubble or some other financial bubble from buying things they can't afford. This also would make economic growth more sustainable in the long run. And if so, then for once, instead of blaming this generation of young people for being lazy or putting off adulthood, maybe the rest of us will end up thanking them instead.

Cardiff Garcia.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.