Overall Results – Millennials

Millennials are a cohort of the population born after 1980 who were in their teens to early 30s during the 2012 round of PIAAC.13 They comprised 26.2 percent (82 million) of the estimated U.S. population (313 million) and 35 percent of the U.S. civilian non-institutional labor force in 2012. 14 The rationale for the focus on millennials is simple: This generation of American workers and citizens will largely determine the shape of the American economic and social landscape of the future.

Figure 4 displays the average scores of U.S. millennials, as well as the youngest 10-year segment of this cohort (16- to 24-year-olds) for the three PIAAC domains: literacy, numeracy, and PS-TRE (see table C-2 for complete data). Across all three scales, the scores for U.S. millennials are disappointing. In literacy, millennials in 15 of the other 21 countries scored higher than those in the U.S.; only millennials in Spain and Italy had lower average literacy scores than their peers in the U.S. In numeracy, U.S. millennials ranked last (though their score was not statistically different from that of Spanish and Italian millennials). In PS-TRE, where one might expect a competitive advantage for this cohort, U.S. millennials did not score higher than those in any of the PIAAC participating countries. The very youngest of this cohort (16- to 24-year-olds), who could be in the labor force until at least 2065, ranked dead last in numeracy and among the bottom in PS-TRE.

Another way to look at and understand the performance of millennials is to compare percentages across countries at key proficiency levels. For both literacy and numeracy, there were five levels of proficiency (below level 1, level 1, level 2, level 3, and level 4/5) and four levels for PS-TRE (below level 1, level 1, level 2, and level 3). 15 Performance at level 3 is considered the minimum standard for literacy and numeracy; performance at level 2 is considered the minimum standard for PS-TRE. 16 Various indices converge to suggest that individuals with level 3 skills in literacy and numeracy and level 2 skills in PS-TRE have greater access to multiple social, economic, and educational benefits. 17 Table 1 shows the percentage of millennials as well as adults age 16–65 on all three scales who performed below this minimum standard for these domains.

Here, too, the results are cause for concern. Fully one half (50%) of America’s millennials failed to reach level 3 in literacy and nearly two-thirds (64%) failed to reach this minimum level in numeracy. In literacy, only Italy (60%) and Spain (59%) had a greater percentage of millennials that scored below level 3 than the U.S., while other countries, such as Finland and Japan, had percentages as low as 23 percent and 19 percent, respectively. In numeracy, no country had a greater percentage of millennials below this minimum standard (64%, although the percentages of millennials below level 3 in Italy and Spain were not statistically different from that of the U.S.). These data reveal that a relatively large percentage of our young adults cannot perform literacy tasks that ask them to “identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information and often require varying levels of inferencing,” or numeracy tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem solving strategies or relevant information.” 18

A similar pattern of results was revealed in PS-TRE, a new assessment of problem-solving skills that focused on how well adults in participating countries understood and could interact effectively with digital technology: 56 percent of millennials performed below level 2, which was one of the highest percentages among all participating countries.

The comparatively low skill level of U.S. millennials is likely to test our international competitiveness over the coming decades. If our future rests in part on the skills of this cohort—as these individuals represent the workforce, parents, educators, and our political bedrock—then that future looks bleak.

Having examined the pattern of performance for millennials across the domains of literacy, numeracy, and PS-TRE, the remainder of the report will explore in more detail some of the disaggregated data to probe how levels of educational attainment, socioeconomic status, nativity, and race/ethnicity are related to the performance of U.S. millennials. In addition, we will examine performance at the top and bottom ends of the score distribution.

We will focus solely on the numeracy scale in our examination. We do so for the following reasons. First, a number of reports on U.S. performance have already covered the ground on literacy. 19 Second, the PS-TRE assessment—while an innovative and important measure of problem-solving skills—has a more limited number of participating countries, a more restricted sample of participants overall, and (because the measure is new) no trend data. 20 Third, researchers have found that numeracy is a robust predictor of labor market success. 21 Finally, the relatively poor performance of the U.S. on the numeracy scale—compared to the previous assessment year and in relation to other countries in 2012—calls for greater scrutiny of how different demographic subgroups in the U.S. performed on this measure and what these patterns might suggest in terms of policy recommendations.

13 “On Pay Gap, Millennial Women Near Parity – For Now,” Pew Research Center, December 11, 2013, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/12/11/on-pay-gap-millennial-women-near-parity-for-now/.

14 U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, “2012 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates,” data generated using American FactFinder, http://factfinder2.census.gov; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, “Employment Status of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population by Age, Sex, and Race,” Household Data Annual Averages, Table 3, 2012, accessed January 2013.

15 For more information on PIAAC proficiency levels, see appendix B.

16 Andrew Sum, Irwin Kirsch, and Robert Taggart, The Twin Challenges of Mediocrity and Inequality – Literacy in the U.S. From an International Perspective (Princeton, NJ: Policy Information Center, Educational Testing Service, 2002).

17 OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013.

18 OECD, Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments – Framework for the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing 2013).

19 Louis Soares and Laura W. Perna, Readiness for the Learning Economy (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2014); OECD, Time for the U.S. to Reskill?

20 The PIAAC assessment design was developed to route respondents to the most appropriate delivery mode as a means to help assure the most reliable, valid, and comparable assessment of skills. The scores for respondents who had no computer experience, failed the information and communications technology skills test, or refused the computer-based assessment did not contribute to the estimation of the item parameters for the PS-TRE domain.

21 David Autor, “Skills, Education, and the Rise of Earnings Inequality Among the ‘Other 99 Percent.’ ” Science Magazine, May 23, 2014, 843-51. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1251868.