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


Over the past decade, we at the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education at ETS have been using data from national and international comparative surveys to better understand the importance of key cognitive and workplace skills in the lives of individuals. One of the clear messages emerging from this work is that skills exert a significant influence not only on individual life outcomes but on the well-being of our societies.

The demands of technologically infused economies, the rapid pace of change, and global competition have profoundly altered the ways adults work and live. Technology and globalization have transformed the workplace and increased the demand for more broadly skilled individuals. Unlike the past, when tasks in specific job sectors remained relatively constant over the working lives of most employees, employers now seek those who can keep pace with rapid changes in required knowledge and technologies. As a result, they seek individuals with the skills necessary to benefit from ongoing training programs and, more importantly, the ability and initiative to learn on their own and continuously upgrade what they know and can do. In addition to these changes in the way we work, everyday tasks increasingly require us to navigate, analyze, and problem solve using information that resides in complex digital environments. Increasingly, adults must use such information to make critical decisions impacting their health, financial security, and access to social services.

In an effort to develop a clearer picture of the roles that skills play in the lives of individuals and societies overall, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) undertook the largest survey of adult skills ever conducted as part of a program known as PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies). Over the first cycle of PIAAC, there were three rounds of data collection involving over 30 countries. Unlike school-based surveys, which focus on specific ages or grades of in-school students, PIAAC was designed as a household study of nationally representative samples of adults ages 16-65 and was able to reflect the technology-based world in which we live and broaden what could be measured by being the first large-scale assessment administered on computers (OECD, 2013).

In their initial report based on analysis of the PIAAC data (America's Skills Challenge, 2015), the authors of the current paper focused on our nation's millennials, those who were 16-34 at the time of the first PIAAC assessment. Their analyses revealed that, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American cohort, these young adults demonstrated relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers in PIAAC. These findings held true overall as well as when applied to our best performing adults (i.e., those in the 90th percentile), the native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic level measured by PIAAC.

In Too Big to Fail: Millennials on the Margins, Sands and Goodman return to the question of how skills are distributed across the millennial population, focusing on the size and demographic characteristics of U.S. millennials with low literacy and numeracy skills, and the resulting impact on social and economic outcomes. They do this in part by examining the issue of "disconnected youth," a term typically applied to those ages 16-24 who are not employed or engaged in formal education or training. Since the Great Recession of 2008, researchers have become increasingly concerned with these disconnected youth who, according to some estimates, represent approximately 6 million young adults in the United States. The focus of this research has been on their educational attainment and labor market participation. While helpful, this approach is limited in two ways. First, it focuses on only our youngest adults at a time when the transition to adulthood is more prolonged. Second, it is based on the premise that employment and/or more education are assured catalysts for entry into the middle class and improving life outcomes. The authors question whether this assumption is appropriate to current circumstances; they suggest that looking at young adults only in terms of ties to the labor market or formal education may underestimate the scope of the challenges that we face and may skew our understanding of the policies needed to alter our course.

When skill measures are used to deepen our understanding of who is connected and disconnected in our society, the authors argue, a more accurate picture of our marginalized millennials emerges. Of a cohort of nearly 77 million, an estimated 36 million have low skills in literacy and 46 million in numeracy. The vast majority of these low skilled millennials were in fact connected to employment or education (31 million in literacy and 39 million in numeracy). These numbers are sobering because the findings presented in this report show that skills are associated with an array of important outcomes including employment opportunities, wages, and benefits. The author's findings also underscore that literacy and numeracy are not only connected with economic returns but play a critical role in uniting our society and democracy. For example, Sands and Goodman report that better skills are associated with increased levels of trust and civic engagement. Other research also supports that skills are associated with the likelihood of individuals participating in lifelong learning, keeping abreast of social and political events, voting in state and national elections, and trusting others. It also supports that literacy is likely to be one of the pathways linking education and health and may contribute to the disparities observed in the quality of health care that many receive.

If the disparities in skills and opportunities observed in the PIAAC data were confined to this generation alone, it would be concerning enough. But there is mounting evidence that the accumulation of advantage or disadvantage experienced by one generation will be passed to the next, making life outcomes increasingly dependent on circumstances of birth. As argued in Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America (Kirsch, Braun, Lennon, & Sands, 2016) our economic and social well-being are deeply intertwined.

Sands and Goodman evoke the phrase "too big to fail" to suggest the interconnected nature of the challenges that low skills pose to individuals and our society as a whole. As they maintain, it is becoming increasingly clear that those whom we marginalize should not be thought of as "them" because they are, in fact, "us." If, as a nation, we do not find more effective ways to improve the skills and the lives of these young adults, we will likely continue to drift apart, placing an enormous strain on our nation's social fabric and the character of its democracy.

Irwin Kirsch
Director of the ETS Centers for Global Assessment
and Research on Human Capital & Education


OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013), doi:10.1787/9789264204256-en.

Madeline Goodman, Anita Sands, and Richard A. Coley, America's Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2015),

Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon, and Anita Sands, Choosing our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2016),