Millennial, save thyself

When you see a tweet like this, you have to think, “What could go wrong?”


Ironically, the National Review blog post in question, by Brad Wilcox, was called, “What Could Go Wrong? Millennials are underemployed, unhitched, and unchurched at record rates.” In it he riffs off of the new Pew Research Center report, “Millennials in Adulthood.” His thesis is this:

Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment — work, marriage, and civil society — are worryingly weak.

Just a couple of completely wrong things about this. Apart from the marriage issue, about which we’ve long since learned Wilcox does not know what he’s talking, look at what he says about work:

 In fact, full-time employment for young men remains at or near record lows. This matters because full-time work remains the best way to avoid poverty and to chart a path into the middle class for ordinary Americans. Work also affords most Americans an important sense of dignity and meaning — the psychological boost provided by what American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks calls a sense of “earned success.”

After that big setup to a link to his boss at AEI, Wilcox shows this figure, the source for which is not revealed, but it’s presumably drawn from the Current Population Survey (though I didn’t realized CPS already goes three clicks beyond 2013):


Anyway, the scary line downward there is for 20-24 year-olds. How awful that they are so disconnected from the labor force these days, not developing their sense of “earned success.” I attempted to recreate that trend here, using the IPUMS extractor:

20-24-lfThat’s some drop in labor force participation since the peak at 77% in 2001, all the way down to 69% in 2013. So, what are they doing instead? Oh, right:

20-24-lf-educThe percentage of 20-24 year-olds attending school increased from 29% in 1990 to 41% in 2013. Altogether, the percentage in either school or the labor force (and some are doing both) has increased slightly. How bad is that? (I suspect this pattern would hold for the other age groups in Wilcox’s figure as well, but the CPS question on school enrollment was only asked of people under age 25. Note also the CPS excludes incarcerated people, which includes a lot of young people.)

So, unless you think education is bad for ties to “core human institutions,” that’s just wrong.

Happy yet?

After marriage, Wilcox moves to civil society, “measured here by religion” (don’t get me started). Obviously, religion is down. And then his conclusion about work, marriage and religion together:

Why does this matter? Historically, these core institutions have furnished meaning, money, and social support to generation after generation of Americans. Even today, data from the 2006–2012 General Social Survey suggest that, taken together, these institutions remain strongly linked to a sense of happiness among today’s Millennials. For instance, 58 percent of Millennial men who were married, employed full-time, and regular religious attendees reported that they are very happy in life; by contrast, only 25 percent of Millennial men who were unmarried, not working full-time, and religiously disengaged reported that they are very happy in life.

What is this, “taken together”? What if I told you that people who millionaires, love hot dogs, and have blue eyes are much richer than people who are not millionaires, hate hot dogs, and have brown eyes? Would that mean that, “taken together,” these factors “remain strongly linked”?

This is easily tested with the publicly available GSS data. I used Pew’s definition of Mellennial (age 18-33 in 2014, so born in the years 1981-1995) and found 676 men in the pooled sample for 2006-2012. There is a strong relationship with “happiness” here, but it is not with all three of these American-dream elements, it’s just with marriage.

I used ordinary least squares regression to predict being “very happy” according to whether the men report attending religious services twice per month or more, being employed full-time, and being married (logistic regression gives the same pattern but is harder to interpret). Then, for the “strongly linked” concept, I created a dummy variable indicating those men who had the Wilcox trifecta — all three good things (there were all of 34 such men in the sample). Wilcox’s claim is that these elements are “strongly linked,” implying all three is greater than the sum of the three separately.

Here are the results:

Predicting “Very Happy” among Mellennial men: General Social Survey

2006-2012 (OLS; N=676)

Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t| Coef P>|t|
Religious service at 2x+/month .07 .08 .02 .61 .03 .46
Employed full-time .06 .08 .01 .69 .02 .62
Married .29 <.001 .28 <.001 .30 <.001
Wilcox trifecta (all three)  —  — -.07 .48

However you slice it, married men born between 1981 and 1995 are more likely to say they are “very happy” than those who aren’t married. Cheerful bastards. On the other hand, going to church and having a full-time job aren’t significantly associated with very happiness. And the greater-than-the-sum hypothesis fails.

It’s also the case that having a full-time job, being married, and going to church aren’t highly correlated — especially work and church, which aren’t correlated at all (.001). I don’t think you can say these three elements are “strongly linked” to very happiness, or to each other.

Kids these days

But the details don’t matter when the kids-these-days, moral-sky-is-falling story is so firmly dug in. This is his final point:

Perhaps more worrisome, however, is the erosion of trust documented among the Millennial generation in the new Pew report. Only 19 percent of Millennials say that “most people can be trusted” — a response rate that marks them as much less trusting of their fellow citizens than were earlier generations of Americans, as the figure below shows.

But that’s actually not what the figure shows:


The Gen X folks in the Pew survey are ages 34-49, the Millennials are 18-33, or 16 years younger. So in fact the figure shows that Millennials are almost exactly where Gen X was when they were 18-33, in the mid-1990s — about 20% trusting. No (recent) generational change.

So, back to the Charles Murray tweet. Isn’t it shocking that when someone agrees with him in the conclusions, he thinks they’re brilliant in the analysis?

8 thoughts on “Millennial, save thyself

  1. “The percentage of 20-24 year-olds attending school increased from 29% in 1990 to 41% in 2013.”

    This is not a believable number. College and Community college enrollments have not increased by close to 50 % (including the rise in population between 1990 and 2013). I believe eithe”

    (1) IPUMS Extraction is wrong.

    (2) IPUMS data is wrong

    (3) People are lying about being in school.

    Or all three of the above. On the other hand I believe that the labor force participation of 20-24 have been above 70% all of last century beyond about 1951.

    This is not to say that BW is correct; he is as unhinged as any other conservative. The appropriate criticism here is that the baby boomers have wiped out job creation for the youth through:

    1. Uncontrolled immigration,

    2. Through the use of outsourcing, the country has moved most entry level jobs to foreign nations.

    3. Boomers have taken a larger share of income and jobs , and standing in the way of new entrants in the jobs.

    4. Capitalism has reduced new investments in the US focusing on production in foreign nations.

    The millenials are in big trouble, and the reasons are the earlier generation.


  2. “So, unless you think education is bad for ties to “core human institutions,” that’s just wrong.”

    This is just so wrong. I don’t know who started this; the idea, that more education is a meaningful solution. College for all is just a lousy,lousy, idea. The next bubble waiting to burst is the college loan bubble. WE NEED TO REDUCE COLLEGE, and GRAD SCHOOL Enrollment founded by cheap government propped loans. All those college-enrolled students in 19-24 age group! how are they going to pay the loans. I know this s against the college-industrial complex, but stop! WE NEED MORE JOBS, not more schooling.

    Often, I feel that Charles Murray, and college faculty are all both sides of the same coin; just running their Kabuki shadow boxing match for fun, on the skeletons of taxed citizens, and loan-repaying college students.


  3. Oh I looked it up, and found the enrollment percentages from NCES.

    Table 213. Enrollment rates of 18- to 24-year-olds in degree-granting institutions, by level of institution and sex and race/ethnicity of student: 1967 through 2010
    Year Enrollment as a percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds
    Total, all students Level of institution
    2-year 4-year

    1970 ………. 25.7 — (†) — (†)
    1972 ……. 25.5 ) — (†) — (†)
    1981 ………. 26.1 ) 7.5 (0.22) 18.6 (0.33)
    1990 …… 32.0 (0.47) 8.7 (0.28) 23.3 (0.43)
    1991 …… 33.3 (0.48) 9.7 (0.30) 23.6 (0.43)
    2010 41.2 (0.57) 12.9 (0.36) 28.2 (0.53)

    This made me violently sick. We are gonna have a lot of unemployed and underemployed college grads.


  4. Any time I read anything by Charles Murray, Brad Wilcox or their ilk — I immediately feel less trusting. Perhaps it’s their smoke and mirrors style, their tendency to cherry pick. Perhaps it’s the smug egotism woven through their work. Perhaps it’s their unwillingness to honestly and openly address other explanations for what they see — explanations that are even, quite often, rather obvious to the people they seek to explain.

    The strange thing is — there is plenty of research which shows that behaving in an untrustworthy manner undermines trust. If young people today really are less trusting than past generations, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Murray, Wilcox, and those like them are contributors to this situation. They are certainly not helping. People sense phonies and hidden agendas, and many young people are especially good at this.


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