The millennials are the brainiest, best-educated generation ever. Yet their elders often stop them from reaching their full potential, argues Robert Guest
Jan 23rd 2016
SHEN XIANG LIVES in a shipping crate on a construction site in Shanghai which he shares with at least seven other young workers. He sleeps in a bunk and uses a bucket to wash in. “It’s uncomfortable,” he says. Still, he pays no rent and the walk to work is only a few paces. Mr Shen, who was born in 1989, hails from a village of “mountains, rivers and trees”. He is a migrant worker and the son of two migrants, so he has always been a second-class citizen in his own country.
In China, many public services in cities are reserved for those with a hukou (residence permit). Despite recent reforms, it is still hard for a rural migrant to obtain a big-city hukou. Mr Shen was shut out of government schools in Shanghai even though his parents worked there. Instead he had to make do with a worse one back in his village.
Now he paints hotels. The pay is good—300 yuan ($47) for an 11-hour day—and jobs are more plentiful in Shanghai than back in the countryside. His ambition is “to get married as fast as I can”. But he cannot afford to. There are more young men than young women in China because so many girl babies were aborted in previous decades. So the women today can afford to be picky. Mr Shen had a girlfriend once, but her family demanded that he buy her a house. “I didn’t have enough money, so we broke up,” he recalls. Mr Shen doubts that he will ever be able to buy a flat in Shanghai. In any case, without the right hukou his children would not get subsidised education or health care there. “It’s unfair,” he says.
There are 1.8 billion young people in the world, roughly a quarter of the total population. (This report defines “young” as between about 15 and 30.) All generalisations about such a vast group should be taken with a bucket of salt. What is true of young Chinese may not apply to young Americans or Burundians. But the young do have some things in common: they grew up in the age of smartphones and in the shadow of a global financial disaster. They fret that it is hard to get a good education, a steady job, a home and—eventually—a mate with whom to start a family.
Companies are obsessed with understanding how “millennials” think, the better to recruit them or sell them stuff. Consultants churn out endless reports explaining that they like to share, require constant praise and so forth. Pundits fret that millennials in rich countries never seem to grow out of adolescence, with their constant posting of selfies on social media and their desire for “safe spaces” at university, shielded from discomforting ideas.
This report takes a global view, since 85% of young people live in developing countries, and focuses on practical matters, such as education and jobs. And it will argue that the young are an oppressed minority, held back by their elders. They are unlike other oppressed minorities, of course. Their “oppressors” do not set out to harm them. On the contrary, they often love and nurture them. Many would gladly swap places with them, too.
In some respects the young have never had it so good. They are richer and likely to live longer than any previous generation. On their smartphones they can find all the information in the world. If they are female or gay, in most countries they enjoy freedoms that their predecessors could barely have imagined. They are also brainier than any previous generation. Average scores on intelligence tests have been rising for decades in many countries, thanks to better nutrition and mass education.
Yet much of their talent is being squandered. In most regions they are at least twice as likely as their elders to be unemployed. Over 25% of youngsters in middle-income nations and 15% in rich ones are NEETs: not in education, employment or training. The job market they are entering is more competitive than ever, and in many countries the rules are rigged to favour those who already have a job.
Education has become so expensive that many students rack up heavy debts. Housing has grown costlier, too, especially in the globally connected megacities where the best jobs are. Young people yearn to move to such cities: beside higher pay, they offer excitement and a wide selection of other young people to date or marry. Yet constraints on the supply of housing make that hard.
For both sexes the path to adulthood—from school to work, marriage and children—has become longer and more complicated. Mostly, this is a good thing. Many young people now study until their mid-20s and put off having children until their late 30s. They form families later partly because they want to and partly because it is taking them longer to become established in their careers and feel financially secure. Alas, despite improvements in fertility treatment the biological clock has not been reset to accommodate modern working lives.
Throughout human history, the old have subsidised the young. In rich countries, however, that flow has recently started to reverse. Ronald Lee of the University of California, Berkeley, and Andrew Mason at the University of Hawaii measured how much people earn at different ages in 23 countries, and how much they consume. Within families, intergenerational transfers still flow almost entirely from older to younger. However, in rich countries public spending favours pensions and health care for the old over education for the young. Much of this is paid for by borrowing, and the bill will one day land on the young. In five of 23 countries in Messrs Lee and Mason’s sample (Germany, Austria, Japan, Slovenia and Hungary), the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now heading from young to old, who tend to be richer. As societies age, many more will join them.
Politicians in democracies listen to the people who vote—which young people seldom do. Only 23% of Americans aged 18-34 cast a ballot in the 2014 mid-term elections, compared with 59% of the over-65s. In Britain’s 2015 general election only 43% of the 18-24s but 78% of the over-65s voted. In both countries the party favoured by older voters won a thumping victory. “My generation has a huge interest in political causes but a lack of faith in political parties,” says Aditi Shorewal, the editor of a student paper at King’s College, London. In autocracies the young are even more disillusioned. In one survey, only 10% of Chinese respondents thought that young people’s career prospects depended more on hard work or ability than on family connections.
All countries need to work harder to give the young a fair shot. If they do not, a whole generation’s talents could be wasted. That would not only be immoral; it would also be dangerous. Angry young people sometimes start revolutions, as the despots overthrown in the Arab Spring can attest.