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How Gen Y Is Overcoming the Economic Blues

Kimberly Palmer

In her new book, Mission: Adulthood: How the 20-Somethings of Today Are Transforming Work, Love, and Life, journalist Hannah Seligson discovers that despite the challenges Generation Y has faced, including a sluggish job market and steep student loans, they are finding their own, often unconventional, paths to success. She profiles seven 20-somethings who deal with job loss, single motherhood, and unexpected career twists, often relying on their own optimism and entrepreneurial spirit to find their footing.

Unlike many of the negative stereotypes about young people, Seligson finds that they are resourceful and deeply committed to finding meaningful work that can also support them financially. U.S. News interviewed Seligson about her book and the truth behind some of those Gen Y myths. Excerpts:

What did you discover about Gen Y's attitude toward money, and how it differs from that of their parents?

To start, they worry a lot more about debt, particularly college loans. Four out of the seven Gen Y-ers I profiled borrowed varying degrees of money to finance four years of undergrad. For many of them, their post-college decade was consumed by the question: "How do I pay back these loans?"

[Read: Why Gen Y Is So Financially Frustrated.]

As Roger Fierro, who took out around $100,000 to attend the University of Chicago, put it: "My debt is the albatross around my neck." Others, though, like Khalia Williams, who went into debt to attend Catholic University, scrimped and saved and sacrificed eating out or living in a nice apartment until she had paid back every penny.

More generally, I think many of us worry about money more than our parents did. Even those with good, stable jobs wondered if they would be able to afford a house, save for retirement, and provide their children with everything they had growing up. To be sure, this is a legacy of the Great Recession, and also that wages haven't risen with inflation in many decades.

But the brighter storyline here--and this might just be a function of youth--but I didn't hear anyone talk about "getting rich." While these seven people could not have been more different, they all spoke the common language of wanting to find meaningful work. And if it made them rich, that would be a nice surprise. Since the job market is still shaky, I think many in this generation think, "What the heck, I might as well go after something I love doing rather than chasing a paycheck."

You point out that older generations do have some negative stereotypes about Gen Y, particularly regarding their money-management skills. Is there any truth to them?

It is certainly true that young people--those in their 20s--receive help from their parents. And in some cases, it's creating a huge financial burden for their parents, cutting into their retirement savings. I say in the book that the big divide between the "haves" and "have nots" in Gen Y are between those whose parents can subsidize them through a few starter jobs and apartments [and those whose parents can't support them].

However, let's keep in mind that this is usually a temporary subsidy. Research done at the University Minnesota found that this "freeloading" usually ends by 30, at the latest, and it happens for discrete periods of time, like during graduate school or between jobs.

What were the biggest financial concerns of the members of Gen Y profiled in the book?

They ranged dramatically. For some, like Roger and Laura Leischner, who was laid off during a very bad job market, they were pretty basic: Will I have enough money to make rent and pay my cell phone bill this month? Laura had a bit of a safety net, but her parents didn't want to use their retirement money to finance Laura's 20s.

Roger, however, as he put it, "had the Dumpster for emergencies." Others worried about whether they could make money from a passion career--whether making money and liking your job are actually compatible. I think that's one of the biggest experiments of the 20s, and the results are different for everyone.

[Read: Should You Save or Pay Off Debt?]

We often hear 20-somethings have really suffered during the last recession and its aftermath. Did you find a sense of deep frustration among those you interviewed, or is that another myth about Gen Y?

I definitely heard a lot frustration. I remember when Laura was working at The Gap selling skinny jeans to toddlers and she definitely had that moment of, "I went college for this?" Same goes for Roger, who has struggled to make ends meet for most of his 20s. But what also struck me was how resilient, scrappy, and resourceful everyone was, even those who were dealt the worst hand financially.

To generalize for a moment, I think that's part of the "can do" attitude of Gen Y. Laura, after a lot of trial and error, found a job working in the public health space. Roger has also landed on his feet.

How has the recession impacted Gen Y more broadly? Do you think it's had a major impact on their sense of selves and perspectives on their careers and future work-life?

It's made us even more skeptical that there's any such thing as job security out there, which has contributed to the rise of entrepreneurship, the gig economy, and the ubiquitous permalancer. We all have to be more self-reliant, because hey, companies and banks are here one day and gone the next.

And for many of us, we've had to chart our own course. There's no blueprint or roadmap for how to be a freelance blogger, marketer, or brand consultant. Or how to start a clean energy company in Africa, for that matter. The recession has forced this generation to forge new and different career paths and work, way outside the confines and rules of traditional industries. In some ways, it's been a very bum deal, but in other ways, it's been a great moment of opportunity.

In the book, you write, "Instead of the Lost Generation, we are the 'Cost Generation,' and more of our choices are determined by money than they were for our parents." What do you mean by that?

I mean that everything is really expensive, from graduate school to housing in major urban areas where most of need to live to get jobs. Now the calculus is: "Do I want to go $50,000 into debt to get a graduate degree, the one that everyone says I need to be competitive in the job market?" As many have pointed out, the master's is the new bachelor's. Our parents just didn't have to face choices at such steep price tags.

I read somewhere that a house in Boston used to cost less than $20,000. That's laughable today. It's no wonder we are delaying the major milestones of adulthood: marriage, mortgage, and kids. Many of us just can't afford them.

[Read: 50 Smart Money Moves.]

Does it weigh on Gen Y that, as you note, they might not ever earn as much as their parents?

Yes, I think it does. I think it's embedded in every generation's DNA to want to do "better" than their parents. But as I learned in the process of writing this book, I think we are redefining what "the good life" is; it's more than just being as rich as our parents, having a white picket fence, two kids, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and buying more things than we can afford.

We, like the boomers did in the 1960s, want to find fulfillment and meaning in our lives, except, for the most part, we are not camping out in ashrams in India to find it. Gen Y is going to have to come to terms with doing more with less. And that might not be such a bad thing for us or society.

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