Millennials who are being forced to move back home may have their economic futures determined by the affluence of their birthplace rather than their own ability.
If you could live in Westchester County, NY or Logan County, OH, which would you choose? What if you were young, college-educated, and just entering the workforce? Recent articles about the return of college-educated Millennials, “the boomerang generation,” to their parents’ homes focus on how income inequality has contributed to the phenomenon overall. But what is critically overlooked is how this situation stratifies inequality within the Millennial generation and reinforces generational economic privilege.
Compare Sarah and Jess. Both graduated from Notre Dame University in 2013 with degrees in English. Both have similar GPAs and campus activities, and as graduation neared, neither was able to find a job. But what makes them different is that after graduation, Sarah moved back in with her parents in Westchester County while Jess moved home to Logan County. Westchester County has a per capita income of $48,385, an opportunity score (an aggregated score measuring the educational attainment, economic strength, and community health of a town or county) of A-, and is located within easy commuting distance of New York City – a major metropolitan hub with over 8 million residents that provides ample opportunity for job-hunting. Logan County has a significantly lower per capita income of $22,993, and an opportunity score of C+. The nearest metropolitan hub, Columbus, is over an hour away, requiring a burdensome commute for job-hunting. These two women, who were nearly indistinguishable on paper at graduation, have profoundly different economic outlooks after moving home.
Let’s imagine both women have the national average amount of student loan debt, $24,301, averaging out to payments of $279.66 a month for the next 10 years. And let’s be generous and assume both women are lucky enough to find jobs in their fields at the median per capita income for their respective towns. Sarah, with almost twice the income of Jess, is able to double her monthly loan payments, becoming debt-free five years earlier than Jess and saving over $4,000 in interest. This puts Sarah on the path to financial stability much sooner.
A college degree used to be a ticket out of a predetermined economic destiny based on your location of birth. In a country where the likelihood that a child raised in the bottom fifth income level will rise to the top fifth can range from 4 percent to 25 percent depending on county of residence, college was traditionally viewed as the equalizer – a chance to escape the economic limitations of your hometown. But, for the one-in-five people in their 20s and early 30s currently living with parents, this is no longer the case. With the rising costs of rent in almost every major metropolitan area, many unemployed or underemployed college graduates will find moving home their only option. And if they are fortunate to have a home in an economically robust area, they will have leverage over their counterparts elsewhere. And as most children who come from economically robust areas come from financially privileged families, this is an example of income inequality growing starker through generational privilege.
College graduates aren’t looking for special treatment, but simply the chance to define their own economic destiny. Policies that work in tandem to address the rise in student loan debt, the affordability of housing in urban areas, and the economic growth needed to create jobs for young graduates are part of the solution. But ultimately, we need to address inequality and acknowledge that for some graduates opportunity is not based on potential but hometown. And that a familial zip code matters more than personal ability should be a rallying cry for anyone concerned about the future of a country once viewed as the “land of opportunity” for all.
Lydia Bowers is Operations Director for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.
Image via Thinkstock