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Meet a millennial who is turning 40, starting yet another new career and has $47,000 in debt. ‘I’ve worked very hard and it didn’t pay off. It feels very unfair.’

February 20, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC

Charles Bryant is turning 40 next month, but in some ways, his career path feels like he’s just graduating high school again. And he’s nowhere near where he expected to be at this point in his life. 

A New York native now living in Delaware, Bryant was working as a hotel manager when the pandemic shut down operations. He had to furlough 36 out of the hotel’s 40 employees and the property turned into a temporary homeless shelter during the pandemic. After taking a pay cut for a while, he eventually left. “The pandemic halted all the positive momentum I had built professionally in the 10 years prior,” Bryant tells Fortune. 

Living with his parents and living off of savings and stimulus checks, Bryant continued to look around for opportunities. He even got a real estate license, but the leads were slow to materialize. Finally, in October 2021, Bryant secured a job as an operations manager for a major retailer.

Photo courtesy of Charles Bryant

Now Bryant—a military veteran who has held jobs in several industries over the years— is starting over on a completely new career path yet again. “I’m not above water yet, but I feel like I can see the light at the surface,” Bryant says of landing the job. 

But the struggle over the last two decades to eke out a career has taken its toll. “I was one of those guys that had a five-year, 10-year plan. I wanted to be at a certain place,” Bryant says. Everyone, he says, dreams of growing up and owning a home with 2.5 kids and a dog. The reality of being divorced and living with his parents is troubling to him. 

“I’ve had some really cool dogs. I’ve had a couple of nice houses, but I haven’t been able to maintain that and I don’t have anything of my own. I’ve had to either sell, sacrifice or lose, just to kind of stay afloat to get to this point,” he adds.

“I followed the rules that they gave us. I played the game and went to school and I did very well. Every job I’ve worked, I’ve worked very hard and it didn’t pay off,” Bryant says. “It feels very unfair.”

The latest in a series of setbacks 

The pandemic hit millennials’ careers hard—and the impact and recovery has been particularly difficult for Black Americans like Bryant. The problem is, it’s not the first setback this cohort has experienced. Older millennials, those born 1981 to 1989, have experienced a number of pivotal events that have left their adult careers and finances more vulnerable, including 9/11, the financial crisis in 2008, the Great Recession and now the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“This whole period of uncertainty over the past couple of years just has kind of been the icing on a really bad cake. It’s been tough,” Bryant says. After graduating high school in 2000, Bryant attended University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but left school before graduating. He joined the military and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2012.

“I always envisioned myself as the family provider, like my dad was, you know, so this was my chance to do that,” Bryant says. But timing was against him. “I came home from combat and the housing bubble had happened,” he says. “I went from being a soldier in the army to working at 7-Eleven and Taco Bell trying to make ends meet.”

Unfortunately, Bryant’s experience is not atypical. In 2010, during the height of the Great Recession, 17.2% of those ages 20 to 24 were out of work. That unemployment had long-term consequences, with the Center for American Progress estimating that those younger workers lost out on $21.4 billion in earnings over the next 10 years, or about $22,000 less per person. 

Millennial wages continued to be stagnant for years after that even once employment rates recovered. In fact, millennials earn about 20% less than baby boomers did at the same age, despite being a better-educated generation overall, according to a 2019 report from the nonpartisan think tank New America.

“It seems like every five or six years we kind of get back to that above-water phase or at least seeing the surface of that water, and then something just drags us back down,” Bryant says. 

Debt burden isn’t helping

Not only have millennials faced tough labor markets and stagnant wages, many carried student loan debt—more so than previous generations. 

Between 1998 and 2016, the number of U.S. households holding some type of student loan debt doubled, according to Pew Research Center. Those between the ages of ages 20 to 35 in 2016 had a median student loan balance of $19,000. A generation earlier, Gen Xers had about $12,800 in student loan debt at those same ages. 

Bryant went back to school for marketing in 2015 and wrapped up his coursework in 2019. “That kind of turned into a whole bunch more debt,” he says. Despite taking advantage of GI benefits, he still has nearly $42,000 in outstanding student loans. And he has another roughly $2,700 in credit card debt. 

Overall, the average millennial carries about $28,317 in debt, not including mortgages, according to Experian’s 2021 State of Credit report, which classifies millennials as those born between  1982 and 1995. When including mortgages, millennials’ total debt averages $255,527 per person. 

Yet like Bryant, many millennials aren’t homeowners. Bryant is currently still living with his parents, but keeping an eye out for a place of his own. The fact that home prices are skyrocketing and the supply of homes has hit record lows isn’t helping much. 

“There’s very little to offer in the way of affordable housing around here, even at the salary that I’m at right now, Bryant adds. While he makes about $70,000, Bryant says “in the grand scheme of things, it’s really just a living wage.”

Of course, not all millennials are struggling. It’s a big generation and many have improved their circumstances. According to Experian’s research, Gen X actually carries more debt per individual than the average millennial. 

“Our most recent research shows millennials have lowered their credit utilization rates and have fewer delinquencies year over year, which is a good thing,” says Rod Griffin, senior director of consumer education and awareness at  Experian, a consumer credit reporting company. 

The future is uncertain

That periodic undertow has made it difficult for Bryant to plan and save for the future. While his current employer offers a 401(k) that he’s contributing towards, he doesn’t have a robust retirement nest egg at this point. And while he did get benefits from his time in the military, he wasn't in long enough to get a pension.

For now, his retirement plan is to strike it big with either his or one of his family’s side gigs and work at that until he can't work anymore, Bryant says. "When you're in your 20s and you're just stepping out there, you've got a whole lifetime ahead of you. I don't feel I have that. I'll be catching up,” he says. 

Yet Bryant does worry about what he’s passing onto his two daughter, if not a house or a major inheritance. "I just try my best to turn into positive motivation as much as possible,” he says. “I really just hope my kids understand that I couldn't give them everything that I wanted to get them, but I gave them everything I had.”

He's not alone. Despite the fact that many millennials have started saving for the future, 38% of millennials feel unprepared for retirement, the highest rate among the generations surveyed by NAFA. About 13% believe they’ll never retire, while another 18% of millennials don’t have a retirement plan.

By age 40, Fidelity recommends having three times their annual salary already saved for retirement. Those ages 35 to 44 earned a median salary of ​​$85,694 in 2020, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data available. Three times that would be just over $257,000. Yet the median average amount millennials have saved for retirement is about $68,000, according to the 21st Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey published in August 2021. 

But despite the burdens, Bryant says he'll figure out a way. If the setbacks have taught him nothing else, it's how to survive. “Age brings wisdom and I have a much broader perspective,” Bryant says of his future plans. “I can look back at  the challenges that we have faced, and just kind of the times that we've overcome, I feel like I've gained a great sense of perseverance.”

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