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


Nearly half of America's millennials—around 36 million—are attempting the transition to adult roles with low literacy skills, and more than half—about 46 million—are doing so with low numeracy skills. Millennials with low skills are more likely to be unemployed, out of the labor force, working in low-skill occupations, and earning low incomes and are less likely to have health-care coverage than those with higher skills. In addition, they are less likely to have trust in others, be civically engaged, and feel as though they can influence government. These are not numbers and correlations that can or should be easily brushed aside. They are especially troubling when we consider the increasingly inequitable opportunities to acquire and develop human capital among our millennial population, and how this relates to compounding advantage and disadvantage in the United States today.

By relying exclusively on disconnection from the labor market and education as a measure of the problem, perhaps we have been applying twentieth-century criteria to understanding a twenty-first century challenge. For much of the last century, the United States was seen as a leader in years of schooling it provided its citizens. A four-year college degree was financially attainable for increasing numbers of Americans. In the three decades of the immediate post-World War II period, a high school degree provided many with sufficient skills to obtain employment that could support a middle class life: sustainable wages, access to health care, and other employee benefits, such as pensions and retirements and affordable higher educational opportunities for one's children. During this period, if you were disconnected from employment or education and you were between 16 and 24 years old, you were likely at risk for an insecure future.

The end of the twentieth century saw the convergence of a number of key changes that altered this equation. We had moved, for better or worse, toward an economy reliant on a global supply chain facilitated by an array of technological advances and policy decisions. As Thomas Friedman argued in 2005, the world had flattened.82 This seismic shift had significant consequences around the globe; in the United States, the shift impacted many facets of life as well, but perhaps especially the nature of work and the need for skills. This new economy differed in important ways from the fast-paced growth of the U.S. economy in the postwar period, when opportunities were abundant for a broad cross-section of the population. Today, though, fewer sustainable opportunities are available to those lacking higher-level skills. And the work that is available for the low-skilled population often carries its own set of risks. Many hourly jobs in the burgeoning services sector—where so many with low skills find employment—do not provide health insurance, retirement benefits, sustainable wages, or even reliable hours. Making matters worse, while educational attainment rates—for both high school and many forms of postsecondary education—have increased,83 many young adults who have either obtained or are pursuing such degrees nonetheless lack critical skills to advance economically and may be additionally burdened by debt for the postsecondary education they have received. In other words, a sizable number of low-skilled millennials are employed or enrolled in education. Defining connection as simply having associations to employment and education therefore obscures a more uncomfortable reality. Disadvantages are mounting for far too many of America's millennials—including some of those who are "connected" in the more traditional sense.

Having so many of our young adults with low levels of human capital jeopardizes more than the ability of some to achieve success in the marketplace. It also threatens our core democratic traditions and institutions. One Constitutional scholar, Ganesh Sitaraman, insists that "the American Constitution is based on the prerequisite that the nation has relative economic equality—a strong middle class, no extreme wealth or poverty, and economic opportunity."84 He contends that "in contrast to two millennia of constitutions premised on class inequality, our Constitution was forged, in part, on trying to rebuild the economic fortunes of ordinary people."85 Barry C. Lynn, who writes about the dangers of the consolidation of corporate power, recently spoke to this point when he asserted that at heart, the framers of the Constitution strove to build a society where citizens would have the "ability to engage in an open, deliberative conversation with one another so that they could actually make ... day-to-day decisions about how to maintain the society."86 True, in the framers' vision, the notion of equality of condition applied to the white population of European descent, but equally true is that this was a stunning and radical departure from the societies of Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, one that allowed for the expansion of the political community. What we observe in the skills data can be read as part of this broader narrative, one that reaches deep into our political tradition. Literacy, and the knowledge acquired through literacy, can be viewed as essential to the acquisition and maintenance of economic equality and an informed and engaged citizenship. The two go hand-in-hand. If left unchecked, the disparities in the skills of our young adults will only deepen inequality and the social anomie that Durkheim so feared.

In reports such as this, it is common to expect policy recommendations that will begin to move us toward solving the problems identified. For all the insights that the PIAAC data can provide, its real power lies in the ability to better illuminate where we are and, thus, where we are headed if we do not change course. The authors of a recent ETS report, Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America, took an expansive look at the issue of inequality of opportunity and argued that we are at a decisive moment that requires us to "develop sufficiently strong countervailing forces" to interrupt this current trend. To do so will require a framework for action that, at its core, speaks to a "coherent and sustained effort on the part of all—individuals, community organizations and associations, nongovernmental organizations, religious institutions, business, and government at all levels."87 Indeed, there appears to be a growing recognition that to truly expand opportunity requires comprehensive action across the multitude of interconnected economic and social systems that shape our lives, in particular, education, housing, government, community and family.88 Yet all too often, solutions intended to address inequities in human capital are framed solely in the context of educational systems. Real improvements are possible only when the full breadth of the problem is understood and a coordinated effort cognizant of how we acquire and nurture human capital over a lifetime is pursued and then sustained for future generations. Here, we are reminded of James Baldwin's statement in confronting race relations in the 1960s: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

Above and beyond this, it is becoming increasingly clear that those whom we allow to fail or fall behind are really not so much "them" as they are "us." In ways that may not be wholly apparent, particularly in times of social upheaval, Americans are inextricably bound to one another even as they are being drawn apart. We depend on those in the labor market to earn salaries that allow them to purchase goods and support other industries; we have systems of a welfare state that depend on the income of working-age adults (Social Security, welfare, Medicaid), and we rely on the taxes of working adults to fund public programs at the national, state, and local levels. The phrase "a rising tide lifts all boats" was popularized during the Age of Affluence in post-World War II America to signify that positive changes in the economy should and would have a ripple effect and lift those in need, in essence tying together those with more and less opportunity in a joint, albeit idealized, venture.89 But the Age of Affluence, which had at its core a broad middle class supported by skills that were well remunerated in the labor market, is in the past. Our task now is to reaffirm a shared contract that holds even when tides are at low ebb. Then, especially, we need to see our fate as coupled to the fate of others.


82 Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

83 Educational Attainment of Young Adults, The Condition of Education, last modified April 2017,

84 Ganesh Sitaraman, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens our Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 8.

85 Ibid., 10.

86 "Economic Equality and the Constitution," interview of Barry Lynn and Ganesh Sitaraman by Jeffrey Rosen, National Constitution Center, April 6, 2017,

87 Kirsch et al., Choosing our Future, 39.

88 See, for example, Emma García and Elaine Weiss, Reducing and Averting Achievement Gaps, Economic Policy Institute/Broader Bolder Approach to Education, September 2017; Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, ed. State of the Union: The Poverty and Inequality Report, special issue, Pathways; Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream, AEI/Brookings, 2015,

89 John F. Kennedy speech, Heber Springs, AR, October 3, 1963,