Reporting on the connections between education and work

For Millennials at work, a growing divide between haves and have nots

More than half of Boomers had a good job by their mid-20s. Millennials with a bachelor’s are besting them—but a new study finds other young adults are falling behind.
Photo by Superstar via Shutterstock

Most Boomers made their way to a good job well before their 30th birthday. Millennials, not so much. That’s the headline finding from a pair of new studies from Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce.

The big idea: Far from a story about generation-wide decline, however, the research paints a more nuanced picture of haves and have nots.

  • Until age 29, less than half of working Millennials—as a group—had a good job, or one that allowed them to be economically sufficient. In contrast, more than half of Boomers had a good job by age 25.

But the data look quite different for the 45 percent of working Millennials with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

  • By age 25, about 65 percent of this group had a good job—higher than their Boomer counterparts with degrees.
  • And that gap just grew as they got older. By age 35, 80 percent of Millennials with degrees had a good job, compared to 70 percent of similar Boomers.

In contrast, by age 35, Millennials with a high school diploma or less still haven’t caught up with their Boomer counterparts, and those with some college or an associate degree just have.

Education and inequity

In short, the wage payoff of a bachelor’s degree—and the penalty for not having one—is much higher for Millennials than for older generations. And that is contributing to widening gaps by race and ethnicity, with Black adults and especially Latino adults getting left behind.

  • Among young men, just 14 percent of Latinos in the workforce and 22 percent of Black ones had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 39 percent of their white peers and 67 percent of Asian American ones.
  • Among young women, the numbers were 23 percent for Latino workers and 29 percent for Black workers, compared to 50 percent and 67 percent for white and Asian American workers, respectively.

That contributes to only 29 percent of Latina Millennials—the lowest of any group—having a good job.

Labor market and inequity

Of course, educational attainment is not the only factor. The authors are clear that other factors—including bias and discrimination along racial and gender lines—play a significant role. 

“Disparities in educational attainment play a bigger role in economic inequality than in the past, but equity gaps by race and gender persist even among young workers at the same education level,” says Kathryn Peltier Campbell, the report’s author and the associate director of editorial policy at the Georgetown center.

  • At every education level, young women are less likely to have a good job than young men are—and the researchers found that held true even when they had the same major and worked in the same field.
  • Latino, Indigenous, and Black workers also fare worse than their white, Asian American, or multi-racial counterparts across all education levels.

Some of the disparities are stark. For example, young white men with only a high school education are more likely to have a good job than are women of any race with an associate degree.

The details

Data and methods: The report defined a good job as one that provides for basic needs and also supports entry into the middle class—jobs paying at least $35,000 per year for young workers, adjusted for the local cost of living. At the median, good jobs pay about $57,000 for Millennial workers.

The Millennials in this study were born between 1981 and 1985, and Boomers were those born between 1946 and 1950. Each groups’ earnings were examined from ages 25 to 35, and only those actively in the labor force were included.

While the focus of the report was on good jobs, the authors are careful to point out that a good job after college isn’t the same thing as a good ROI for college. Many degrees come with debt that may offset wage gains for years—and the authors devote a substantial amount of space to documenting the rising costs of college, the associated student debt, and what to do about it.

Call for greater investment in career transitions

The authors recommend a greater focus on making college affordable or otherwise expanding access. They also advocate for a much greater investment in work-based learning experiences and career counseling for those without degrees.

  • As it stands now, Millennials with a bachelor’s degree are almost eight times more likely to have completed a work-based learning experience than those with only a high school education.

Parting thought: That’s a problem that needs focused attention, says Monique Baptiste, head of Jobs & Skills Global Philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase, which supported the Georgetown center’s research.

“Young people are our next generation of leaders, yet too many, especially from underrepresented communities, don’t have access to the career experiences they need to obtain meaningful employment opportunities,” she says.

Related Posts
Read More

Does college pay off?

We dive into the latest research on college ROI, including a study released today by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. In short: what students study matters a lot.
Download the Work Shift Guide to Understanding New Collar Apprenticeships