Too Big To Fail: Millennials on the Margins
Anita Sands and Madeline Goodman
Using data from the latest round of PIAAC , the relative performance of U.S. millennials compared to their international peers in 30 countries was at best mediocre. In literacy, U.S. millennials scored higher than their peers in 9 countries, lower than those in 11 countries, and on par with the PIAAC average. In numeracy, the results were more troubling. On average, U.S. millennials outperformed only 4 countries (Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Chile) and were below the PIAAC average (Figure 1).
Mean scores are one way to understand the performance of a nation's millennial cohort, but they hide important details about the distribution of performance within countries. Of course, all countries have some percentage of their population at the lowest skill levels, but the range and distribution of performance across the PIAAC participating countries was noteworthy. Consider that in literacy, the percentage range of low-skilled millennials spanned from 2 percent at or below Level 1 in Japan to a high of 41 percent in Chile, with the United States falling toward the middle at 14 percent (Table 1). In numeracy, the range of performance at or below Level 1 spanned from a low of 7 percent (again, Japan) to a high of 53 percent in Chile, with the United States at 25 percent. Twelve nations had a smaller percentage of millennials at or below Level 1 in literacy; in numeracy, 23 countries showed smaller percentages. In numeracy, only Turkey and Chile had larger percentages of their millennial population at or below Level 1. A similar pattern was evident across Level 2: U.S. millennials fell in the middle of the distribution in literacy, and in numeracy, only Ireland, Greece, and Spain had greater percentages of their population at this level.44
Also of note was the ranking in the percentage of higher-skilled U.S. millennials (those performing at or above Level 3) compared to their similarly skilled international peers. Percentages ranged from a high of 81 percent (Japan) to a low of 15 percent (Turkey) in literacy, and a high of 68 percent (Finland) to a low of 16 percent (Chile) in numeracy. Here again, the U.S. ranking was solidly in the middle in literacy (with 53 percent) and relatively poor in numeracy (40 percent), with just 4 nations having lower percentages of their millennial population performing at or above Level 3: Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Chile.
Table 2 shows in more detail the performance of U.S. millennials across select proficiency levels (at or below Level 1, Level 2, and at or above Level 3). Fourteen percent of the millennial population, or approximately 10.4 million, performed at or below Level 1 in literacy. In numeracy, a quarter of all millennials—approximately 19.4 million—performed at this skill level. When we add the millennial population that scored at Level 2, the totals increased dramatically. An estimated 36.2 million millennials (47 percent) performed at or below Level 2 in literacy and an estimated 46.1 million (60 percent) performed at or below Level 2 in numeracy.
Of course, of the roughly 76.7 million U.S. millennials, some are faring well in today's economy and society. Given what is known about the association of skills and life outcomes, those with higher skills (at or above Level 3) are more likely to transition smoothly into adulthood.45 For this group, there is likely a marked forward progression toward achieving a sustainable life for themselves and their children. Yet, for many others with lower skills, the future may be less secure. In fact, in literacy, there were nearly as many millennials who performed at or below Level 2 as there were at or above Level 3 (Figure 2). In numeracy, there were actually more millennials (approximately 15 million more) who performed at or below Level 2 than at or above Level 3.
Having a large number of young adults performing at or below Level 2, combined with the relatively poor performance of U.S. millennials compared to their international peers, is concerning. Within the boundaries of the United States, low skill levels impact individuals' lives across a range of issues, from the obvious ones of employment and education, to the perhaps less obvious but no less important concerns of levels of trust and engagement with society. How will these human and social capital outcomes, when amplified by millions, affect the larger society? From a global perspective, the mediocre skill level of U.S. adults in literacy and the poor performance overall in numeracy invites the question of how the United States can compete internationally when so many are saddled with low skills. Moreover, taking the long view, we need to consider what opportunities are lost when so many young Americans are relegated to the margins of society.
44 For a detailed discussion of the skills of a subset of lower-performing countries in literacy, including the United States, see Anke Grotlüschen, David Mallows, Stephen Reder, and John Sabatini, Adults with Low Proficiency in Literacy or Numeracy, OECD Education Working Paper No. 131 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2016), doi:10.1787/5jm0v44bnmnx-en.
45 OECD Skills Outlook 2013.