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Too Big To Fail: Millennials on the Margins
Anita Sands and Madeline Goodman

Expanding the Notion of Disconnection

Researchers have been focusing a great deal of attention on the growing population of disconnected youth in both Europe and the United States, especially since the 2008 Great Recession. Measure of America recently referred to the problem of youth disconnection from the labor market and education sphere as an "epidemic" and estimated that in the United States today, 5.8 million young adults are neither working nor in school.18 In 2015, the Congressional Research Service released a report claiming the figure to be roughly 6 percent of the total population of 16- to 24-year-olds.19 That same year, the OECD published a report examining rates of disconnected youth across member nations. It concluded that the size of this population made "improving the employment and social integration among youth a prime policy concern."20

The underlying assumption of the current research on youth disconnection is clear: Those who are attached to formal education and/or the labor market have the skills and knowledge necessary for self-sufficiency, while those without such attachments are at risk of being left behind.21 The collective findings from this body of research are important and alarming, but perhaps they don't go far enough.

Our approach here purposefully casts a somewhat different net over the notion of "disconnection" by focusing on the role of cognitive skills in addition to formal links to the labor market or education. While the latter are undoubtedly important issues—employment and higher levels of educational attainment are clearly correlated to higher wages and better life outcomes22—attending solely to these types of connections may not tell us the whole story. Research shows that having low skills limits individuals' ability to fully capitalize on opportunities in our knowledge-centered society.23 Thus, if we define disconnection by the level of one's cognitive skills, we gain a more accurate picture of the challenges many young adults are facing as they transition to the next phase of their lives. Using the PIAAC data, we demonstrate that connection to education and employment are indeed necessary, but not sufficient: Our research indicates that approximately 31 million millennials who have ties to formal education (either in high school or some form of postsecondary education) or employment nonetheless have low literacy skills; 39 million have low numeracy skills. In addition to reconceptualizing how we understand and measure disconnection, we extend the population under consideration by adding 25- to 34-year-olds, as the millennial generation experiences a more prolonged transition into adulthood than previous generations of young adults and remains an important focus of research, policy, and media attention.24

Looking at disconnection in terms of skill level also helps us more fully appreciate the social and economic costs of having low skills. These costs are far reaching, both for individuals—a fact we generally acknowledge—and for society more broadly. At the individual level, the role that human capital plays in one's well-being is generally understood to be clear-cut: High skills are correlated with better jobs, higher wages, and more favorable life outcomes.25 Skills, though, are developed, formally and informally, through myriad connections across a lifetime—one's "social capital." The National Academy of Sciences defines social capital broadly as one's level of "political participation; engagement in community organizations; connectedness with friends and family and neighbors; and attitudes toward and relationships with neighbors, government, and groups unlike one's own." These connections matter because they are aligned with "positive outcomes in many areas of life, including health, altruism, education, employment, and child welfare, and compliance with the law."26 Recent research suggests that individuals with greater levels of social capital are better positioned to both initially acquire and then maintain higher levels of human capital (skills) over a lifetime.27

Individuals with higher levels of human and social capital also transmit advantages to their children in more or less tangible ways. For example, research in early education and child psychology documents that advantage is conferred even before the birth of a child in the form of better prenatal care.28 Parents with greater resources and time are also more likely to read to their children, providing opportunity for the development of richer vocabularies that manifest in higher K-12 achievement scores. In addition, greater resources allow them to provide more access to enriching afterschool and other extracurricular opportunities for their children.29 The human and social capital that amass during childhood then set the stage for a favorable transition to adulthood (e.g., better colleges and employment opportunities). Simply put, advantages tend to accumulate and compound over time. Conversely, a steep—and steepening—slope confronts those living in situations that do not foster the development of human and social capital. Those living in challenging environments or in communities with high rates of crime, poverty, unemployment, or poor health tend to start at a deficit, as do their offspring. Writ large, the dynamics of what can be termed "accumulated advantage and disadvantage," and the inequality that results, is polarizing America—such that increasingly, we simply don't see each other.30 As Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, argues, inequality—and the social segregation it has created and perpetuated—has fostered an environment of polarization where, "[w]e just don't know how the other half lives." This growing divide, according to Putnam, "constrains our sense of reciprocity. It constrains our sense of what we owe to one another. We are less and less a community."31


18 Lewis and Burd-Sharps, Halve the Gap.

19 Congressional Research Service, Disconnected Youth: A Look at 16 to 24 Year Olds Who Are not Working or in School, by Adrienne L. Fernandes-Alcantara (2015),

20 Stéphane Carcillo, Rodrigo Fernández, Sebastian Königs, and Andreea Minea, NEET Youth in the Aftermath of the Crisis: Challenges and Policies (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2015).

21 Congressional Research Service, Disconnected Youth. See also Annie E. Casey Foundation, Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity (Baltimore, Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012),

22 OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013).

23 OECD, Time for the U.S.; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, Making Skills Everyone's Business: A Call to Transform Adult Learning in the United States (Washington, DC: Author, 2015).

24 Reid Cramer, "Millennials Rising: Coming of Age in the Wake of the Great Recession," New America (2014): 11-19; Pew Research Center's reporting on millennials,

25 U.S. Department of Education, Making Skills Everyone's Business; regarding skills and wages, see Neeta Fogg, Paul Harrington, and Ishwar Khatiwada, The Impact of Human Capital Investments on the Earnings of American Workers, Center for Labor Markets and Policy, Drexel University (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, forthcoming); and Autor, "Skills, Education."

26 National Research Council, Civic Engagement and Social Cohesion: Measuring Dimensions of Social Capital to Inform Policy. Kenneth Prewitt, Christopher D. Mackie, and Hermann Habermann (Eds.), Panel on Measuring Social and Civic Engagement and Social Cohesion in Surveys, Committee on National Statistics, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014),

27 Henry Braun, "The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: A Working Framework," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, ed. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016), 137-164; Kirsch et al., Choosing Our Future; Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (London, Penguin, 2010); OECD, Time for the U.S.; U.S. Department of Education, Making Skills Everyone's Business.

28 Janet Currie, "Inequality at Birth: Some Causes and Consequences," American Economic Review 101, no. 3: 1-22 (2011),

29 Emma Garcia, Inequalities at the Starting Gate: Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills Gaps between 2010-2011 Kindergarten Classes, Economic Policy Institute, June 17, 2015,; Timothy M. Smeeding, "Gates, Gaps, and Intergenerational Mobility: The Importance of an Even Start," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, ed. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016), 255-295; Neera Kaushal, Katherine Magnuson, and Jane Waldfogel, "How is Family Income Related to Investments in Children's Learning?", in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chance, ed. Greg J. Duncan and Richard Murnane (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).

30 Elizabeth McNichol, Douglas Hall, David Cooper, and Vincent Palacios, Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Economic Policy Institute, November 15, 2012,; Kirsch et al., Choosing Our Future; for research on social mobility see Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States, NBER Working Paper No. 19843 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014); Raj Chetty, David Grusky, Maximilian Hell, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert Manduca, and Jimmy Narang, The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940, Science (2017), doi:10.1126/science.aal4617.

31 Josh Hoxie, "Income Segregation and Familiarity,",