The Unsexy Truth About Millennials: They’re Poor

If you’re wondering why millennials don’t have much sex, and don’t buy cars, forget social theorizing: the harsh truth lies in their near-empty wallets.


Millennials are not some vast unsolvable mystery. According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau (PDF), they earn $2,000 less than their parents did at a comparable age, they are more likely to live in poverty, and they are more likely to live at home.

But Baby Boomers and Gen Xers still seem to find it hard to believe that basic economic math can explain much of the younger generation’s behavior.

After several news outlets, including The Daily Beast, reported that rates of millennial sexual inactivity in early adulthood are surprisingly high, armchair social theorists came out in force to blame it on everything but the fact that nearly one-third of young adults are still living at home.

One right-wing college news website found a way to attribute the finding to millennials’ desire for “safe spaces.”

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat speculated on Twitter that it was an example of the “porn paradox,” whatever that means. Others attributed it, predictably, to the effects of technology or increased anxiety. A Rutgers biological anthropologist even suggested that millennials might be too “motivated” and “ambitious” to even bother with sex.

The most likely explanation—which was mentioned in the study itself—is that parents’ basements do not make great boom boom rooms. But who needs Occam’s razor when you’re publicly opining about the behavior of an entire generation? Lower wages sending 22-year-olds back home after college isn’t nearly as sexy as complaining about porn or political correctness.

The truth is that lower wages and poverty can account for so many of the things that older generations find so mystifying about millennials.

For example, millennials drive less than their parent’s generation—and until recently, at least—were relatively uninterested in buying cars. As The Atlantic reported in 2012, this crisis prompted automakers to appoint “youth emissaries” and come up with new car colors like “techno pink” and “denim.”But trying to make cars cooler doesn’t change the fact that, as CityLab found, there’s a significant gap in vehicle miles traveled between millenials who make over $30,000 a year and those who make less. Simply put: Cars cost money and millennials have less of it.Millennials have also been shamed for how much they spend eating out instead of say, saving for retirement. “Millennials Are Spending an Embarrassing Amount on Brunch and Takeaway Pizza,” Vice recently declared.

It’s easy to chalk that generational difference up to some sort of narcissistic short-sightedness but the truth is probably a lot closer to fatalism: When millennials can’t save for retirement anyway, why not spring for some bottomless mimosas instead of enrolling in a 401(k)?

A recent Wells Fargo survey found that 41 percent of millennials have not yet started saving for retirement, 64 percent of whom say “they are not making enough money” to do so. The situation is even more dire for millennial women, almost half of whom aren’t saving for retirement, partially as a result of the gender wage gap.

As Suzanne McGee wrote for The Guardian, “[T]here are too many other factors stopping millennials from making that decision to save”—factors like a lack of benefits at work, staggering student debt, and high rental costs.

With so many millennials giving up on their nest eggs, splurging on eggs Benedict makes sense. Likewise with the luxury cosmetics that have proved to be recession-proof for young women.

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There are more millennial trends, too, with plenty of awful, hare-brained explanations to go along with them them.

The Federalist tried to explain millennials’ fondness for socialism—43 percent of people under 30 see it favorably, according to a YouGov survey—by declaring that “Millennials Don’t Know What Socialism Is.” recently asked if “Fear of Committment [Was] Delaying Millennial Homeownership?” but the truth, as Mother Jones noted, is that “Millennials Aren’t Buying Houses Because They Can’t Afford To.”

In June The Economist wondered aloud, “Why aren’t millennials buying diamonds?” and speculated that it was “the taint of conflict and exploitation” that was keeping them away. A more parsimonious explanation? Diamonds are freakin’ expensive, as The Daily Beast’s Kristopher Fraser noted, and as millennials on Twitter were quick to remind the magazine.

So the next time you have a hunch about why millennials are the way they are, ask yourself if economic insecurity might be a better hypothesis. As James Carville famously told Bill Clinton’s campaign right before Baby Boomers came into wealth their children may never know: “It’s the economy, stupid!”