Generation Y: Educated, underemployed and in debt

WASHINGTON Wed May 19, 2010 12:23pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The recession may have a permanent effect on the millennial generation, also called Generation Y.

They are the 18- to 29-year-olds who have graduated with good college degrees into a no-jobs job market, and they are still, in large numbers, underemployed, dependent on their parents and saddled with big college debt.

"All of us know people who still bear the marks of their distinctive coming-of-age experiences: the grandmother raised during the Depression who reuses her tea bags; the child of the Cold War who favors an assertive national security policy; the uncle who grew up in the 1960s and sports a pony tail," said a recent study of Gen Y by the prestigious Pew Research Center.

"We don't yet know which formative experiences the millennials will carry forward throughout their life cycle."

It's a good guess, though, that the worst recession since the Great Depression might have that impact.

Members of Gen Y -- the largest American generation at 92 million strong, compared with some 76 million baby boomers -- have a propensity to be more like their grandparents than their boomer moms and dads, says another recent survey, the Heartland Monitor poll co-sponsored by Allstate and the National Journal. It portrays the generation as seeking stability above all else, and looking for long careers in big, safe companies. Sadly, that's not likely to happen for them.

Gen Y is a smart, educated and agile cohort. Its members are socially networked and digitally savvy, but they have been seriously set back by the troubled economy.

Some 39 percent are receiving family support (but this includes students over the age of 18); 33 percent are living with relatives; and 32 percent told the Heartland Monitor poll that they "find it hard to make ends meet every month."

Millennials carry an average personal debt burden of $21,900.

Here then, is a bit of financial advice aimed at the biggest, most educated, most diverse, most technologically proficient American generation ever.

-- Continue that education. Many millennials went through college with a liberal arts major like "communications" without ever really deciding what they wanted to be when they grew up. That's OK, but now they might need more post-college training than their parents did.

It doesn't have to be a costly graduate degree; as a matter of fact the generation is skeptical about the value of spending and borrowing big bucks for those degrees. But skills really matter. College grads now who are working in malls and as baristas can use distance-learning programs to increase their money making skills in areas as diverse as healthcare and Web design. And the economy might be slow now, but a masters degree in a serious field couldn't hurt.

-- Don't waste precious time believing that any paternalistic company will take care of you -- they never did and they won't now. Even during the 1950s and 1960s, when big company benefits were in their heyday, fewer than half of all workers were covered by pensions, and many workers were laid off just before they vested into their retirement plans.

Take care of yourself. At least with 401(k) plans, Individual Retirement Accounts and other tax-favored savings vehicles, you have the opportunities to do that. Start the savings habit as early as possible; the power of compounding interest really does work in your favor when you start before you are 30.

-- Expect job changes. You are likely to have many different jobs, and possibly careers, over your working years. Keep adding good new experiences to your resume and use those social networking skills to stay in touch with the people who might help you find your next job -- or the one after that.

-- Learn to manage the numbers. There are dozens of websites aimed at helping young, Web-savvy people manage their money. Check out Young Money (www.youngmoney.com) and Mint (www.mint.com), for example. Use the calculators to figure out where you stand; track your credit cards and your debit card and your bank balances; get a single number that represents your net worth. Watching that number grow every month is almost as addictive as using Facebook.

-- Kill the debt. Do whatever it takes, including that prolonged stint in your childhood bedroom, to not be saddled with big debts for credit cards, cars, computers, school -- anything. Those debts will hold you back more than the recession -- they will tie you to the job you hate and limit your ability to spend money on the things you really want.

Cut your budget to essentials, pay down debt in chunks and give yourself the freedom to make the next interesting move. It's out there.

(Linda Stern is a freelance writer. Any opinions in the column are solely those of Ms. Stern. You can follow Linda Stern's financial notes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/lindastern)

(Editing by Maureen Bavdek)

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