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Here We Go Again: Millennials Are Staring At Yet Another Recession


So if you're a millennial, you might have a sense of deja vu right now. Yet another recession has hit, and once again, a collapsing job market is derailing many young adults' lives. Here's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Just over 10 years ago, Alannah Silvernail was attending community college in western New York. And then she hit a rough patch.

ALANNAH SILVERNAIL: My grandmother had passed away, and it ended up being a really tough semester for me.

KURTZLEBEN: So she dropped out one class shy of her associate's degree. Unemployment was still very high from the Great Recession, and Silvernail decided that her major, art, wasn't a viable career path.

SILVERNAIL: Back during that original market crash, I mean, job prospects weren't great, so I was working minimum wage jobs until I went into the truck driving industry.

KURTZLEBEN: That also paid poorly. But eventually, she started driving school buses and motor coaches, which paid better. But now schools are closed, and tourism has dried up, so the 29-year-old Silvernail is on unemployment.

SILVERNAIL: I've always been really driven to work, but it's really weird to me to just sit around for months on end and not do anything.

KURTZLEBEN: The effects of another early-career recession would be lasting and painful for millennials like Silvernail, says William Gale, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

WILLIAM GALE: These type of things have what are called scarring effects. They have long-term effects on wages. They tend to move people down to a different wage path.

KURTZLEBEN: For her part, Silvernail had been working up to 70 hours a week before the pandemic. Things had been looking up for her.

SILVERNAIL: Actually, this past year was the first time I've ever been able to buy a new used car. And in the next three to five years, I was planning on getting a house, but I'm not really sure that that's possible now.

KURTZLEBEN: Millennials are between 24 and 39 years old, and data show that they have less wealth than previous generations did at that age. One factor at work, millennials are more diverse. And in America, a host of factors have prevented many people of color from amassing wealth. The coronavirus crisis could exacerbate that. Writer Michael Arceneaux, himself a millennial, is the author of the essay collection "I Don't Want To Die Poor" and spoke via Skype.

MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: My book more or less is particularly about how student loan debt, specifically private student loan debt, has kind of impacted every facet of my life.

KURTZLEBEN: Arceneaux took out more than $100,000, much of it in those high-interest private student loans, to graduate from Howard University in 2007. In a generation already bearing heavy student debt, college can be a shaky step to the middle class. And black Americans like Arceneaux tend to borrow more for college than white people do and have a harder time paying it back. To Arceneaux, if you want to talk about the struggles of millennials, you have to talk about racial gaps like this in student debt, but also, for example, in the lasting effects of housing segregation.

ARCENEAUX: I think millennials as a collective generation have been screwed over. And it's even worse for some of us than others, which is why it's important for all of us, but particularly those who are suffering the most, to speak out more openly.

KURTZLEBEN: For Arceneaux personally, his large student debt has weighed not only on his finances, but also in the past affected how he saw relationships.

ARCENEAUX: I've, you know, maybe sometimes overthought it, but I've also been like, how serious do you all want to be in a relationship because I don't want to pull in somebody who would then be legally attached to that debt.

KURTZLEBEN: The financial challenges millennials face today could add up to yet another difficulty down the road - saving for retirement. Silvernail knows that firsthand. She really would like to start a retirement account, but...

SILVERNAIL: I'm not 100% sure on how a 401k even works because it's nothing - I've never had one offered at a job before.

KURTZLEBEN: There were already signs before this crisis that millennials would have trouble retiring. Coronavirus could worsen that, meaning today's economic problems could still be playing out for them decades from now. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "23.01.2018") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.