Millennials in the US see themselves as less middle class and more working class than any other generation since records began three decades ago, the Guardian and Ipsos Mori have found. Analysing social survey data spanning 34 years reveals that only about a third of adults aged 18-35 think they are part of the US middle class. Meanwhile 56.5% of this age group describe themselves as working class.
The number of millennials – who are also known as Generation Y and number about 80 million in the US – describing themselves as middle class has fallen in almost every survey conducted every other year, dropping from 45.6% in 2002 to a record low of 34.8% in 2014. In that year, 8% of millennials considered themselves to be lower class and less than 1% considered themselves to be upper class.
The large downshift in class identity among young adults may have helped explain the surprisingly strong performance in Democratic primaries of the insurgent presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has promised to scrap college tuition fees and raise minimum wages.
The last time almost as many people from any other generation described themselves as working class was in 1982, when 56.1% of baby boomers chose this label. That year, the oldest boomers were in their late 30s, Ronald Reagan was in his second year of office, and Time magazine celebrated the advent of the personal computer.
Bobby Duffy, global director of Ipsos’s Social Research Institute, said the results, obtained from the University of Chicago’s 40-year General Social Survey, were surprising.
“You expect future generations to keep improving their social and financial situations and what I’ve seen is instead that, if anything, there is a contraction in the middle classes for this cohort. We’ve got the lowest level of young people counting themselves as middle class going all the way back to the 1970s, which is a surprise,” he said.
“Some of that will be lifecycle effect as young people leave home … and start to establish their own life and that may shift what class they’re in, but it is still the case that that is the longest decline that we’ve seen in other generations and it’s gone to the lowest level compared to other generations.”
Carolina Cadavid, a 26-year-old assistant buyer in Boston, said she went to college thinking it would put her on track to have the typical American lifestyle her parents envisioned for her when they emigrated to the US from Colombia, but now that she is armed with a university degree she considers herself working class. “I thought I would be way better off by now,” she said.
Cadavid had to take out student loans two years into college, an unexpected financial necessity she said had prevented her from hitting the standards for “making it”. “I’m definitely scared, mostly because I’m paying so much for myself and for my student loans, so I can’t put that money into a nest egg,” she said. “How will I ever be able to put down money for a house? How will I be able to afford a wedding?”
Cadavid also sees her peers delaying typical markers of adulthood – such as moving out of their childhood home, getting married and starting a family – for financial reasons. “I know so many friends who are paying off student debt and who live at home – it’s uncharted territory,” she said.
The self-reported data in class perceptions among the youngest in the US align with economic data obtained by the Guardian in conjunction with the Luxembourg income study, which shows that despite 30 years of average GDP growth, younger US workers are much worse off in real terms than their parents.
Dakota Clement, 23, does not see himself as strongly belonging to a class group because he is a student who also works full-time, earning the minimum wage, to make ends meet. “I am reluctant to say that I am in the working class because that gives me more of a blue-collar feeling, but I’m very much in the academic sphere and I am not really making any money off of it,” Clement said.
The graduate student and teaching assistant, who lives in Corvallis, Oregon, says he is “less interested in having a successful stock market than I am in having government policies that help the wealth of this nation, that help the citizens of the nation”. “The numbers that show up in the Wall Street Journal don’t concern me. What concerns me is whether or not I’m going to be able to afford to go to the hospital if I need to.”
By 2013, wages for under-35s had declined in real terms compared with those of people the same age three decades earlier, even when stripping out the effect of long-term unemployment during the worst recession in recent memory. This means millennials are much poorer than their baby-boomer parents were at roughly the same stage of their lives.
However, wages for older cohorts have risen substantially in real terms over the same three-and-a-half decades. As the boomers have aged into their later working life, they have continued to earn more than their own parents did.
Duffy added that the millennial shift towards more radical presidential candidates from both parties, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, could well be linked to their diminishing economic prospects, a phenomenon that has been matched in the UK with the election of leftwing stalwart Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition.
“When the current system doesn’t seem quite so certain, people are of more of a mind to shake things up. That’s what these candidates do, in very different ways, they give that sense of changing a system that actually has been really tough on this particular younger cohort,” said Duffy.