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Young People Have the Bleakest Futures—But the Best Attitudes

A new study confirms our worst fears: Young people have the fewest jobs in 60 years. So why are we so optimistic?

A new Pew Research Center study about young people's financial realities essentially corrals all those sobering statistics we've been hearing about for the past five years. Only 54 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 are currently employed—the lowest percentage since the government began collecting data in 1948. One in four 18-to-34-year-olds say they have moved back in with their parents after living on their own, and 35 percent say that, because of the bad economy, they have retreated to school. The general public isn't kidding themselves about these numbers, either; huge majorities of those surveyed agree finding a job, saving for the future, paying for college, and buying a home is harder for young adults today than it was for their parents’ generation.

But there's one section of the study that's either heartening or disconcerting, depending on how you look at it: Young people are still incredibly optimistic about their futures. Among those ages 18 to 34, only 9 percent fear they won't ever have enough to live the life they want (older adults are much less certain).

Does this reveal denial or determination? Considering that a young person's early employment history (or lack thereof) has a major impact on her earning power in the future, many Millennials may indeed never make enough money to be comfortable. It's possible that we, especially those of us who were educated and groomed for the job market, refuse to see the recession as anything more than a phase. "We're weathering a storm," we tell ourselves. This era of unemployment, crippling debt, and low-wage drudgery will soon be over.

On one hand, willful ignorance is dangerous; we may wake up one day and realize we're waiting for the start of a life that's out of our reach. But this sense of invincibility may turn out to be a positive thing. It means that, eventually, when and if things don't work out for us, we won't take no for an answer; we'll be pushed to make our current jobs better or create jobs that don't yet exist. That same optimism is already beginning to be channeled into indignance (just look at Occupy Wall Street). A reality check is necessary to demand better, but so are high expectations.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user david_shankbone.

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