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Are millennials really the first generation to do worse than their parents?

Are millennials really destined to earn less than their parents?
Are millennials really destined to earn less than their parents?

"Kids these days ... " At some point in every adult life, we all utter this phrase. No matter how young and hip you think you are -- use of the word "hip" notwithstanding -- one day you will spot a pair of 20-somethings in skinny jeans furiously texting away on a turquoise bicycle built for two and you will mutter, "Kids these days are obnoxious/self-absorbed/technologically obsessed." And you will be right.

But you will also be participating in a glorious tradition of generation-bashing that dates back to the first clan of cavemen that scoffed at their spoiled, lazy kids who had no idea what it was like to live without fire or really sharp rocks.

The latest generation to suffer the scorn of their elders is the so-called millennial generation, aka Generation Y, aka "The Me Me Me Generation" according to a 2013 Time cover story. Born roughly between 1981 and 2001, this is the first generation to come of age in the new millennium [source: Pew Research]. In the popular press and blog rants, millennials are routinely described as narcissistic, lazy, overly entitled, addicted to social media, and coddled by their helicopter parents in whose basements they plan to live until their mid-30s.

Millennials also are widely predicted to become the first generation in U.S. history to do worse than their parents financially. There is a powerful temptation to equate the much-maligned personality traits of millennials with their high unemployment rate -- at 16.2 percent for young people 16 to 24, it's more than twice the national average -- and limited financial prospects [source: Ayres]. But the truth, as usual, is much more complicated.

If millennials indeed become the first generation to do worse than their parents, it's less about the generation gap than the wealth gap. It's less about entitled kids who can't stand hard work than a wholesale lack of jobs that offer a living wage for someone with limited experience. In other words, it's not just the "kids these days," but the "economy these days" that we really should be moaning about.

Let's start with a summary of the economic forces working against the success of Millennials, then see if we can salvage a small scrap of hope for their future.