Recession Woes Haven't Dampened Optimism Among Millennials

Despite being slammed by the recession, young adults remain upbeat about their long-term future.

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It's been rough for Millennials growing up in the wake of the Great Recession.

Only 54 percent of adults between 18 and 24 are currently employed, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the lowest since the government started collecting the data in 1948. Wages for that age group have also dropped 6 percent, more than any other age group over the past four years.

The spiel from parents about this generation having unlimited potential? That hasn't panned out for nearly half of young people, who say they've taken jobs they didn't want just to pay the bills.

Still more have had to put of big "markers of adulthood"—marriage, children, homeownership—on hold because of the bad economy. Another quarter have had to move back into their parents' house, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sheets and all.

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Plain and simple, it's harder to be a "grown-up" in these economic times, and for the most part, the public agrees. Large majorities of Americans say it's harder for younger adults to find a job, save for the future, pay for college, and buy a home, than it was for their parents' generation.

Despite having the metaphoric wind in their faces, the spirit of optimism curiously persists among young adults. Almost 60 percent of adults between ages 18 and 34 said that while they don't have enough money now, they think they will in the future, a sentiment that is almost identical to levels seen in 2004, according to Kim Parker, associate director of Pew Social and Demographic Trends Project.

Although there are more young adults today who say they've don't have enough money to live the kind of lifestyle they want, "when you ask them 'Do you think in the future you will have enough [money]?' the level of optimism is just the same as in 2004," Parker says. "That was surprising to us given all these challenges that [young adults] are facing, not just in the workplace but also in some aspects of their personal life."

The picture is much less rosy among older Americans: Almost 30 percent of adults 35 and older say they don't anticipate making enough money down the road.

Even young people who are unemployed still see a brighter future—75 percent of those who say they don't have enough income now believe they will have enough money in the future.

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Young adults' optimism doesn't end with their own financial situations. About 60 percent of young adults polled expect their children to be better off financially than they are, compared with just 43 percent among the 35-and-older set.

But is that optimism naïve ignorance or evidence of bedrock faith in American economic resilience?

"We attributed it almost more to their stage in life than anything else," Parker says. "[Their optimism] isn't necessarily influenced by their economic circumstances, but more by their sense of having a long timeline ahead of them to make up for whatever losses they are suffering right now. It is surprising—their optimism—given the labor statistics that we saw."

Some of it may also have to do with the relatively large number of young adults who have gone back to school in the economic doldrums for more training and advanced degrees.

"Maybe they're optimistic about their chances because they're actively pursuing education and thinking that might prepare them for the workplace," Parker says.

Twitter: @mmhandley