Living in a World They Didn’t Make: A Look at Millennial Women
The United States has a storied history of strong, fierce women fighting for equal rights and opportunity. Every mother hopes her daughter will fare better than she, facing fewer obstacles and less discrimination, and benefitting from a more equitable society.
As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day and commemorate the adoption of the 19th amendment, it’s important to acknowledge our progress toward equity. But it is equally important that we acknowledge that, for Millennial women — those born from the early 1980s through the early 2000s — the gains have faltered.
Coming of age during the Great Recession and the push for mass incarceration, these women grew up in troubling economic and social times.
According to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a recent report by Population Reference Bureau, Millennial women face unprecedented student debt levels, dramatically higher incarceration rates, a 37 percent increase in poverty, and they are more likely to be underemployed or unemployed than previous generations. Millennial women are also delaying home ownership — a key to building wealth and assets. And they have less representation than previous generations in high-wage and high-tech jobs.
Interestingly, Millennial women also belong to the most diverse generation in our history — 43 percent of Millennial women are non-White. A recent report by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development showed that racial wealth inequities plague this generation. The average single, 20-something, White woman with a college degree has $3,400 in wealth, while her Black counterpart is $11,000 in debt. For married women in their 30s, Blacks are $20,500 in debt while Whites have $97,000 in wealth.
Increasingly, mothers now in their 50s and early 60s are needing to financially support their children. Twenty-three percent of Millennial women live at home with their parents, and studies have shown that these parents are willing to dip into their retirement funds to continue to support their children. On the flip side, many Millennial women, especially among immigrant communities and communities of color, are expected to be the primary financial provider for their families, often including parents and extended family.
Baby Boomers and Gen Xers risking their retirement funds to care for their children, coupled with a decrease in traditional wealth and asset building activities for Millennials, raises the question of how they will care for their parents without moving into major financial hardship themselves.
Women have long been told they can “do or be anything,” but, in reality, institutional and structural barriers prevent them from achieving economic stability as the needs of women have long been neglected in male-dominated policy making tables. Our current policies around family leave, healthcare, student debt, and childcare do not account for the impact of the remarkable increase in women serving as the primary or co-breadwinner for families, or the rise in educational attainment of women. More women need to be at the policy making tables, and more research needs to be conducted to craft policies that will better reflect the needs of women in our changing society. The fundamental stability of our communities and our economy depend on our commitment to genuinely investing in women’s equality.
Jhumpa Bhattacharya is Director of Racial Equity and Strategy at the Oakland-Based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, www.insightcced.org