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

The Millennial Generation

Often referred to as millennials, but also known as Gen Y or echo boomers, this group of 16- to 34- year-olds is generally understood as those born between 1980 and 2000. These individuals are, by and large, the offspring of the postwar baby-boom generation (1946-1964) and older Gen Xers (1965-1980); others are young immigrants to the United States. In total, millennials number around 77 million, or nearly a quarter of the U.S. population, and their significance can hardly be overstated: They are the largest living generation of Americans and represent a sizable portion of the current and future labor force.32 It is probably not an exaggeration to say that, as millennials go, so goes America.

Our previous report, America's Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (2015), had a decidedly international focus and explored the skills of U.S. millennials in comparison to 21 other OECD countries that participated in PIAAC.33 PIAAC was designed to assess and compare the key cognitive and workplace skills of adults (age 16-65) needed for successful participation in twenty-first century society and a globalized economy. As of its latest reported administration (Round 2, 2012-2016), the survey measured the skills of adults across 33 countries in three domains: literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology rich environments.34 In addition to the cognitive data captured, the OECD collected a wealth of background information that can be linked to skills performance.35

America's Skill Challenge reported that despite having the highest levels of educational attainment in American history, U.S. millennials were, by and large, outperformed by their peers in other OECD countries across the three domains. This finding was especially true for numeracy. When we looked at various subpopulations of millennials—native born, those with different levels of educational attainment, those at the highest and lowest levels of performance, and those with different socioeconomic backgrounds—U.S. millennials were generally outperformed by their peers in many of the PIAAC participating countries. This current report again relies on data from PIAAC and provides a focused examination of the size and dimensions of the U.S. young adult population in terms of skill levels in literacy and numeracy, and characteristics associated with these levels.36


32 See research on millennials from the Pew Research Center at

33 See note 12.

34 In addition to 24 nations in Round 1, an additional 9 nations were added for PIAAC Round 2 in 2014: Chile, Greece, Indonesia, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovenia, and Turkey. For more details on participating countries, see

35 For more information on the PIAAC background questionnaire, see

36 A supplemental round of data collection in the United States was conducted in 2014. The data used herein are based primarily on the combined samples of the U.S. PIAAC household data from 2012 and 2014.