Millennials have worse debt, more poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than the previous two generations did at the same stage — but they are the country's most stubborn optimists.
A new Pew study finds that the impact of the Great Recession (2007-2009), globalization and rapid changes in the workforce have kept incomes down in the longest stretch of economic stagnation in the modern era, but these problems just aren't keeping the younger generation down.
Despite financial burdens, more than 8 in 10 millennials say they have enough money to lead the lives that they want (32 percent) or expect to in the future (53 percent). No other cohort of adults is nearly as confident.
This confidence is especially notable given that half of millennials don't expect there will be any Social Security money left for them, and debt remains a crushing problem. College grads have an average loan debt of about $27,000 (two decades ago the average was $15,000).
Part of their sunny disposition may stem from education: although millennials are starting their young lives with more debt and fewer job opportunities, they are also the best-educated generation the U.S. has produced. Fully a third of "older" millennials (ages 26 to 33) have a four-year college degree or more, and education is highly correlated with economic success.
They are also undaunted by technology and see it as a tool that opens innovation and opportunity, especially because they are the first generation to grow up with the Internet and social media, rather than having to adapt to it.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told NBC.com that the "economic realities of their generation might make millennials more pessimistic over time," especially since those embarking on careers during or after the recession are expected to have lower earnings for a decade or longer.
"As they start to mature into brackets where you want to think about starting a family and buying a house, they will realize they were just unlucky to be born at a time where they were entering this labor market, and that will weigh heavy on them," said Shierholz, who studies young workers.