Peak Millennials and Elite Overproduction


            Heerlen           An economics reporter for the Times offered an interesting set of observations from a personal and generational perspective about what she called “peak millennials,” which she defined as the sub-generation that will turn 33 and 34 in 2024.  On a chart of US population growth, they hit the top as younger millennials.  Since her focus is the economy, what did it mean for all of them to be looking for work, housing, and the future?

There have been big issues for these folks.  They surged the rolls of colleges and universities packing out classes to the degree that pushed many to overbuild for their capacity and to find themselves failing and falling now.  For the student customers, it also has been a time when they took on a huge debt burden, as the institutions jacked the bill to provide the supply to meet their demand.  They came out of college in 2008-2009 in the heart of the Great Recession, bringing that debt along with them, as they met the challenge of fewer jobs and more jobseekers.  Some of that has changed now with pandemic job demands and fewer jobseekers perhaps opening up more opportunities.

But, then there are housing and family questions.  Looking for places they could afford during the burst of the housing bubble in the Great Recession wasn’t easy, as the housing supply was crimped and the demand soared.  Roommates and staying with parents became the fix in too many of their cases.  Time was lost between debt and rising costs, meeting less stable income. Homeownership rose somewhat with low interest rates, but continues to be a problem and rents continue to drive inflation, especially in cities.  Birthrates have gone down given the uncertainties in this sub-generation, leaving many to worry about what happens when they hit their senior years, and there aren’t enough younger nurses, carers, servers, and others to handle the load.

This is all interesting, but nagging at me the whole time I read the piece was the End Times book, whose insights I shared recently.  Historically, perhaps the key driver in social upheaval according to Turchin’s research has been “elite overproduction,” meaning too many highly education people with typical aspirations confronting more competition for fewer elite positions and opportunities for wealth and prestige.

Our Times reporter tries to put a positive spin on all of this, but it’s hard not to see the prospects for discontent and mass demands for change coming out of this age group and its dataset, trials, and tribulations in the US.  As organizers, we absolutely see this same generation in the United Kingdom surging into ACORN, triggered by a crisis in affordable housing supply.  The unrest is palpable.

We see some of this in the US perhaps.  The rise of interest and support for unionization, including in atypical settings like coffeehouses, coops, tech, and nonprofits, underlines this tension.  We don’t see the same organizational impetus elsewhere, and our reporter was silent on this for her cohort.  Efforts to address student loans may have some salience for some.  The social media substitutes for direct action and organization may have sidetracked and displaced some of the energy and anger for others.

Maybe it’s me, and I’m reading too much and listening for clues that aren’t there, but how does this peak millennial problem not become combustible and forecast social upheaval?