Everyone whines about millennials, the generation aged 20 to 35. According to the Guardian, “Millennials are accused of being lazy, self-involved, cosseted, politically apathetic narcissists, who aren’t able to function without a smartphone and who live in a state of perpetual adolescence, incapable of commitment.”

In fact, according to the Guardian, they have it tougher than any generation has for a long time:

... a combination of debt, joblessness, globalisation, demographics and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations.

And it’s only going to get worse as they pick up the tab for what a different article in The Guardian calls the “world’s most stunning accounting disaster” — the failure to figure out who is going to pay for those fat pensions and high health care costs that baby boomers were promised but no one put away enough money for.

Or as a professor of economics notes, “The U.S. is out to bankrupt its children.”

So many trends work together to make life harder for young people than it was for their parents. Wages have been stagnant, manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, unions have been busted, housing prices have exploded in the cities where there are jobs, student loans are a huge burden.

And all those insults thrown at the millennial generation miss the true story: They are not staying at their parents’ houses hanging out in coffee shops because they are indulged. They are living there because their incomes have shrunk dramatically. According to the Guardian:

Where 30 years ago young adults used to earn more than national averages, now in many countries they have slumped to earning as much as 20 percent below their average compatriot. Pensioners by comparison have seen income soar.
  • Prosperity has plummeted for young adults in the rich world.
  • In the U.S., under-30s are now poorer than retired people.
  • In the U.K., pensioner disposable income has grown prodigiously – three times as fast as the income of young people.
  • Millennials have suffered real term losses in wages in the U.S., Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Canada, and in some countries this was underway even before the 2008 financial crisis.

disposable incomeMillennials are in the red. (Photo: The Guardian)

The Guardian’s projections for an economy in which millennials don’t have any buying power are truly scary:

They [young people] have been key to purchasing all sorts of goods from washing machines, microwaves, cars and houses, to life insurance, as well as putting money away in savings. It’s their appetite for more that has powered global growth for decades. What then happens in a few years when millennials get older and don’t have the disposable income to repeat the same purchasing exercise? Some economists believe that the effects of this are already playing out and, as a result, the developed world’s economies may now be grinding to a halt.

The Guardian also notes that because of what it calls the “democratic imbalance,” because there are so many boomers and seniors who get out and vote, that this group really controls the political process, and they are squeezing more out of governments than any other group.

“Our figures show double-digit, real-terms growth in social transfers — what governments give out — over 30 years to pensioners aged 65-79, ranging from as low as 26 percent in Germany to 146 percent in the U.K.”

There’s not much light at the end of this tunnel, but the next time someone complains about the millennial generation, point out that they have been screwed out of their future. “It is likely to be the first time in industrialised history, save for periods of war or natural disaster, that the incomes of young adults have fallen so far when compared with the rest of society.”

After reading that, it’s hard to complain about their phones.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.