The Great Millennial Disappointment: From student loan forgiveness to a housing crisis, this is why millennials can’t have nice things
When he first heard about President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive student loan debt for millions of federal borrowers, Travis Rapoza was cautiously optimistic.
A Pell Grant recipient, Rapoza qualifies for $20,000 in loan forgiveness under the plan that Biden unveiled in August. Coupled with money he’s saved while living with his parents for the past four years, he would finally be debt-free and could move out on his own.
Finally, Rapoza thought, his generation was being heard by leaders in Washington D.C. Finally, something was being done to address the financial anxiety and hardship many millennials face.
He should have known better, he tells Fortune. The excitement felt by many federal borrowers was short-lived as Biden’s forgiveness plan was put on hold due to multiple legal challenges from conservative and libertarian groups. Its fate now rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I was ecstatic, who wouldn’t be?” says Rapoza, 31, of when he learned of Biden’s debt forgiveness plan. “But why would we get a nice thing? I don’t think we’re expecting anything.”
Low expectations come with the territory when you’re a millennial. The generation, which includes those born between 1981 and 1996, has faced one financial set back after another. They’ve been hit hard by not one but two global crises—the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic—so-called “Black Swan” events that typically happen once in a generation. These events have had an outsized impact on their financial lives: They’re buying houses later (if they can afford them at all), pushing back marriage, and on-the-fence about children. They’re working more than their parents while being told over and over that they’re lazy and selfish.
Many, like Rapoza, feel like they were pushed to attend expensive colleges by mom and dad, who told them higher education was the ticket to a better life. But while they are more educated than their parents’ generations, that education came with a significantly higher student loan debt load, as college costs soared.
“The possibility of student loan relief being dangled in front of them, only to be potentially snatched away, is the latest in a long line of issues,” says Jonathan McCollum, chair of federal government relations at New York law firm Davidoff Hutcher & Citron.
Median wages are still higher for college graduates than non-grads and those who don’t attend, but they have not kept pace with the cost of living. On top of record housing prices, many of today’s young adults also owe hundreds (if not thousands) each month on their student loans.
“What’s really frustrating is when I hear baby boomers say, ‘Well I paid for my student loans, why can’t you?’ Not reckoning with the reality that the price of going to college has increased more than threefold in 30 years,” says André Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It is frustrating when you have a group of individuals who are doing everything they are asked to do in terms of getting a degree so they can support a knowledge economy, and yet having to shoulder a greater proportion of the cost than their predecessors.”
Too good to be true
When it was announced, Biden’s student loan relief plan offered a glimmer of hope for those who feel trapped by their debt. Instead, millennials can add it to the list of promises that turned into disappointments, big and small, from affordable housing to trying to score a ticket to a Taylor Swift concert.
Take housing. When federal student loan payments were paused during the COVID-19 pandemic, some millennials were finally financially stable enough to buy homes, despite record-high prices across the country. Mortgage rates were at record lows, giving first-time homebuyers a brief window when their money could go farther. With a little extra cash to save each month, millennials got a chance to dream about how they’d spend if their debt wasn’t a factor. Rapoza and other young adults say that if loan forgiveness proceeds, they will finally be able to save for a home.
Then mortgage rates soared this year, coupled with continued record-high housing prices, shutting out many first-time homebuyers once again.
Millennials can’t even catch a break in their leisure time. When they do have enough disposable income to spend on something fun like concert tickets, they’re still running into walls erected by past generations. Earlier this month, millions tried to log onto Ticketmaster to score seats for Taylor Swift’s massive U.S. tour—and millions failed. Would it have been an easier process if Ticketmaster wasn’t owned by LiveNation, a merger that many Democrats, including quintessential millennial politician Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are now calling a monopoly? Impossible to say, but the experience is emblematic of how millennials are consistently left with the short-end of the stick: massive debt, low pay, high cost-of-living, and a number of boomer policies keeping them from success and happiness.
“It seems like we’ve been hit with everything,” says Ja’Net Adams, a 41-year-old who paid off $50,000 in student loan debt and now helps others manage their personal finances. “All of it is tied together for the millennials and affecting their whole financial picture.”
Every set back compounds the next. Millennials took out student loans to go to a good school in hopes of landing a good job. But the debt precludes many from being able to buy a house, save, or start investing. Given all of that, they have less wealth than baby boomers did at the same age.
Soon, they’ll be caring for their aging parents en masse, adding even more financial strain. The problems are amplified for Black and other non-white millennials.
“It’s almost like we don’t want millennials to get a piece of the American Dream,” says Perry.
So Generation Y could use a win. But Rapoza says it looks unlikely that win will come in the form of student loan forgiveness, given that Biden is asking the U.S. Supreme Court—currently composed of six conservative justices and three liberals—to rule on lawfulness of the program.
“If you’re going to play baseball, and it’s raining, I wouldn’t expect a good game,” he says.
Still, both Rapoza and Perry say the government needs to do something to help its citizens. And saying “don’t go to college” isn’t a solution; America needs an educated workforce to be competitive, they say.
Instead of only throwing up hurdles to stop student loan forgiveness and other Democratic policies, they would like to see Republicans present some solutions for America’s higher education cost crisis. Rapoza isn’t giving up hope that something can be done to help his and future generations.
“We were sold this myth and it didn’t pan out and we’re left holding the bag,” says Rapoza. “Can someone please give us a hand? Can you not see how bad we are hit?”
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