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Millennials keep their chins up despite high unemployment in economic downturn

Facing high unemployment, millennials draw resilience from flexible goals, tech savvy, and parental cushions. Will these supports help them emerge strong from the economic downturn?

By / staff writer / April 23, 2010

Tim Malcolm, at his father’s house in New Hampshire, worked in construction as a project manager after earning his degree in architecture. Laid off last summer and facing high unemployment, he set out to do volunteer work – in all 50 states.

Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor

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It's been more than 50 years since such a large share of America's young people – 37 percent, by one study – were out of work.

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But even as the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression played havoc with their career plans, the so-called Millennial Generation (ages 18 to 29) is coming of age with their characteristic "help save the world" optimism largely undimmed. So far, at least, hard times and rampant unemployment have not left the same searing mark on today's young adults that some previous recessions did on the young people of their day.

"Their response to hard times is to band together and fix the institutions that have failed them," says Morley Winograd, author of books and studies on the Millennial Generation. "They approach the problem with optimism and a can-do attitude, unlike the way other generations might react to the same experience when they were young."

There are a number of reasons for the chin-up stance.

For one, the recession, while the deepest since the Great Depression, is not dragging on so long that all hope of finding a good job has evaporated. For another, there's a decent government safety net now, in the form of food stamps and unemployment benefits. Millennials, moreover, seem destined to become the most educated generation ever and see themselves as having a lot on the ball. And let's not forget the soft landing provided by parents, widely considered the most overprotective, don't-cut-the-apron-strings cohort of parents in US history.

The experience of 20-something Kevin Henneberger, who graduated in December from Texas A&M University, is a case in point. He and his wife are both looking for work and have considered many options.

"My wife and I would be open to volunteering, or ultimately taking a job out of our fields," says Mr. Henneberger during an interview in Boston, where he is looking for work. "But I'm confident that there's some job out there in the Web communications industry that I could do. I've just got to snag something. And ... right now I'm ... still pumped to get into my field, so I just have to channel that energy."

To save money, the couple has moved to her parents' home in California while they try to crack into the job market.

That parental cushion wasn't so available to earlier generations of young people – and it wasn't something that many from the preceding Generation X looked to when the dotcom bubble burst and unemployment socked them in 2000. But 13 percent of parents with grown children recently reported that an adult son or daughter had moved home in the past year, says a Pew Research Center survey. Of those, 2 in 10 were full-time students and one-quarter were unemployed. About one-third had lived on their own before returning home.

Of course, if young people are sidelined in the workforce for a long time, it hurts both them and the nation as a whole. Shaped in the early '90s by Disney videos, cellphones, and the Internet, they are often characterized as collaborative, creative, tech-smart, and idealistic, in an "impact the world" sense, say those who research attitudes of Millennials.

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