Axios AM Deep Dive

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April 06, 2019

Chatter about millennials usually skews toward urban America — their purchasing power, their brand loyalty, what they wear, how they work, what they eat.

  • This special report — by Axios' Steve LeVine, Stef Kight, Erica Pandey, Lazaro Gamio, Jessie Li and Alison Snyder — turns in a different direction: millennials' future lives and work.

1 big thing ... Millennial reckoning: Here come the robots

A mechanical arm
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Millennials will be the first generation to fully face the new age of automation, which could wipe out jobs faster than the economy creates new ones, writes Future Editor Steve LeVine.

  • Why it matters: Millennials — who disrupted our culture, stores and workplaces — now face their own coming upheaval.

The millennial generation has the opportunity afforded by more tech than anyone prior.

  • But prior technological revolutions have led to decades-long interregnums before real wages returned to prior levels. And those thrown out of work often had trouble finding new jobs.
  • The new automation is tech on steroids. As time goes on, it will strike hard at blue-collar millennials — in cities and more rural parts of the country alike.

What's happening: Millennials already face one of the toughest economic landscapes of any generation since World War II: They work for relatively low pay, and college graduates are saddled with an average of $30,000 in student debt.

  • Millennials came of age during the Great Recession. Since then, three-quarters of all new U.S. jobs have paid less than a middle-class income, according to Labor Department data.
  • These minimum- or lower-wage jobs are the ones that millennials — ages 23-38, born between 1981 and 1996, and the largest generation in the country — are often taking.
  • Unlike prior generations, there may not be much of a ladder up from there. Part of that is economics — tech and globalization have hollowed out middle-skill, middle-wage jobs (see story below). And part of it is the continued aftermath of the financial crash.

Real life: John Russell, a 27-year-old farmer from Galena, Ohio, tells Axios that, until now, millennials in his area had three relatively secure jobs — at Walmart, a Walmart warehouse or driving a semi-truck.

  • "Warehouses and semi-truck jobs — the most security you can have in the Ohio Valley — are at risk of automation," Russell said during a chat in Storm Lake, Iowa, where he was attending a political event.
  • "What's going to happen when they go away? The companies will get a big boost in profit, but the people will have to figure out what to do."

Russell himself, who has a degree in agricultural science from Cornell, works a 21-acre farm bought by his parents. So does a brother who is an arborist.

  • Russell said he earns most of his money contracting out to grind up tree stumps.

This was a recurring theme in conversations in rural Iowa: Finding work is a matter of providence, often involving your family.

  • David Rossman, a 37-year-old farmer from Harlan, said that between college and returning to his parents' 700-acre organic farm in 2014, he has been a line cook, a rural organizer, a lumberyard worker and a graduate student.
  • As time goes on, he said, "guys my age aren't going to be able to farm unless they are an heir or someone will take them under their wing."

2. Making it

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Interactive: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Interactive: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Some millennials are actually doing well: the median wage for statisticians and financial analysts — both of which have high concentrations of older millennials — is $84,000 a year.

  • Why it matters: That's significantly more than the hundreds of thousands of slightly younger millennials working as cashiers, with a median income of $21,000.

Other jobs that pay better:

  • The youngest job paying above the $37,700 median income of all occupations is technicians in the life, fitness and social sciences, with a median age of 35.
  • Almost half of financial analysts, event planners and market analysts are millennials, and they also make at least $10,000 above median income.
  • Physician assistant is the highest-paid occupation with a heavy concentration of millennials with a $104,900 median salary. It is also one of the top 5 fastest growing jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections.

Go deeper: Browse the interactive.

3. Where women and minorities work

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Interactive: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Interactive: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Millennials are significantly more diverse than previous generations, but even in their age cohort, minorities and women still earn less than whites and men.

A closer look: There are significant outliers — 31% of computer hardware engineers are Asian, with a median income of $115,000, according to BLS data.

  • Pharmacists, the highest paid job of the group, are 63% women.

Bonus fact: Elementary and middle school teacher is the most popular jobs for millennials.

Go deeper:

4. Help wanted: Digital janitor

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Technology is giving rise to a new crop of middle-skill jobs for the millennial generation — but these are without the stability, pay or career ladders of the past, Erica Pandey writes.

The big picture: The first wave of automation-fueled job losses hollowed out middle-skill work — manufacturing positions that required some education, but not a college degree, and led to lucrative, lifelong careers. That left behind jobs mostly at the high- and low-skill extremes.

  • Among these new, middle-skill jobs is the "digital janitor," says Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future. "The more data we produce, the more digital detritus we throw out there," she says.

And someone will need to clean it up.

  • Think Facebook content moderators and YouTube video screeners. "As good as AI is and will be, it will require these very human skills of discretion to be able to do that work," says Gorbis.

But these jobs come with issues.

  • Though they are physically safer than the manufacturing jobs of the 20th century, they can be highly stressful, exhausting and even lead to PTSD, as The Verge's Casey Newton reports in an investigation of the lives of Facebook's moderators.
  • Those digital janitors earn $28,200 a year. And such workers are typically hired on a part-time or contract basis.
  • When millennials are earning $15 an hour, or $31,000 a year, they are regarded as middle wage, even though that would not be sufficient to support the accouterments of the traditional middle-class American lifestyle.

The bottom line: These don't have to be "bad jobs" forever for millennials, Gorbis notes. Manufacturing jobs seemed like bad ones before labor unions and regulators stepped in to improve pay and conditions: "We made them into good jobs."

5. Saving aviation

Data: Federal Aviation Administration; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
Data: Federal Aviation Administration; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A surge in pilot certificates for millennials is chipping away at a critical, decades-long labor shortage in aviation, Stef Kight writes.

What's happening: Since 2006 — when millennials began reaching adulthood — the number of 20- to 35-year-old pilots has been slowly ticking back up after decades of decline, and compensating for a fall in other age categories, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.

  • In 2008, 150,907 people in the 20- to 34-year-old age group had active pilot certificates.
  • By last year, the number was up to 197,493.

But there's still a long way to go:

  • There are 177,000 fewer pilots today than in 1980. Fewer than a third are 20–34 years old, whereas this age group made up almost half of pilots in 1980.
  • A fifth of certified U.S. commercial pilots are between 50 and 65 years old. (The mandatory retirement age is 65.)

Major airlines — such as American Airlines, Delta, Southwest and United, which account for 67.5% of industry revenue — have attracted young pilots with wage, benefits and recruitment strategies, such as Delta's Propel program.

  • But smaller regional and cargo airlines are struggling to fill their cockpits — even though they are paying a starting salary of $60,000, up from around $20,000 in 2012.

Go deeper: Read Stef's story.

6. By the numbers: The miscast story of overworking

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Viral stories on the culture of "workism" paint a picture of millennials logging 18-hour workdays.

Yet, on average, they don’t work longer than other age groups, according to an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll and BLS data, Jessie Li writes.

  • 75% of millennials aged 25–34 years old work 31–50 hours a week, with 16% working 51 or more.
  • Similarly, 74% of those 35–64 years old work 31–50 hours a week, with 17% working 51 or more.
  • Americans aged 25–34 years old spend an average of 4.93 hours each day on work or work-related activities. That's versus 5.22 hours for ages 35–44 and 4.97 hours for ages 45–54, according to BLS.

Between the lines: A number of other factors, including student debt, job insecurity and low pay may contribute to millennial stress and anxiety.

Another takeaway: Anecdotally, millennials are thought to be distinct in frequently blurring the lines between their work and personal lives.

  • But over 70% of people polled found it important to have friends at work — across all age demographics.

Go deeper: Why are millennials so obsessed with how much they work? (Daniel Engber — Slate)

7. 1 generational thing: Are we speaking the same language?

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Erica Pandey writes: Being a millennial writer with a boomer editor has hiccups. Some days, I wonder if my editor, Steve, and I are speaking the same language.

Like the time he posed this question about a story pitch: "Is this about the man in the gray flannel suit?"


  • Steve explained that the idiom went back to a hit novel and film and cultural touchstone in the 1950s. It refers to a corporate cog in the machine — "just another man in a gray flannel suit."

This linguistic gap can make me nervous. Once, Steve inserted the phrase "inside dope" into one of my articles.

  • "My story has nothing to do with secret weed, if that's what you mean," I said, with some sarcasm. But what the heck was the dope reference?
  • Slang for insider info, I learned.

More recently, Steve asked if a company I cover had established a "beachhead."

  • This one, I Googled. I now have a starting list for boomer military references.