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Commentary: Millennials find themselves out of luck and jobs

They’re living at home in growing numbers. They’re not buying homes, which creates ripple effects throughout the housing market. They’re having more babies out of wedlock than in it. Why can’t millennials get it together?

The first and most obvious answer is “jobs.” If you can’t find a stable job, it’s hard to move out of Mom’s basement. It’s hard to commit to a mortgage or a spouse. It’s hard, in other words, to launch into the middle-class life that constitutes the American Dream.

Millennials are some of the biggest victims of the financial crisis. Those without a college degree face high rates of unemployment, while those who have a sheepskin are more and more likely to be underemployed in a job that doesn’t require their degree. Even if the student loan crisis has been overstated, the rising cost of college tuition certainly doesn’t help.

Yes, kids can live through a few years’ worth of frustration; they’re young, they’ll get over it. The question is not whether it is frustrating, however, but whether it is permanent.

The answer to that question comes in two parts. The first is what happens to the job market: Does it recover? Or have millennials’ job prospects reached a permanently low plateau?

A 2013 paper looking at changes in the skill demands of jobs makes a rather dismal case that the demand for “routine cognitive” work – the kind of jobs that used to employ a lot of college graduates – has plummeted since 1970. For a long time, nonroutine analytical and interpersonal jobs were taking up the slack, but they’ve plateaued since 2000. This is consistent with other research and new data on the evolution of productivity in the U.S. economy, which had a tech-driven boom starting around 1995 but seems to have returned to trend.

All of these findings paint a notso-hotso picture of future millennial earnings.

On the other hand, the job market looked pretty dim in 1938, and things were about to get a lot better. So you don’t want to be too deterministic with these sorts of forecasts.

In many ways, the bigger question is cultural: Are millennials going to shun homeownership and marriage?

On the former, maybe, but I doubt it; on the latter, I think the evidence is more troubling. Although high rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing are partially due to the breakdown in job prospects for lower-skilled men, that can’t explain the whole picture.

As sociologist Brad Wilcox is fond of pointing out, we didn’t see a similar marital collapse during the Great Depression, when men’s job market prospects were much worse. The change in family formation patterns are at least partially driven by culture, not the job market. Part of the reason the men at the bottom of the income ladder don’t make great husband material is that women aren’t demanding that they be husband material.

Don’t get me wrong: Economics really does play a role in this cultural shift. As George Orwell perceptively noted in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” healthy middle-class norms about work become unsustainable when the job market gets too bad. If 25 percent of the community is unemployed or only intermittently employed, it’s hard to enforce a norm that people who aren’t working full time are doing something wrong.

But cultural norm shifts can take on a life of their own, especially when children are involved. In many communities, a generation is being raised expecting that fathers will be around intermittently, that adult relationships will be unstable. They will carry that expectation into their own adult lives. They also will carry economic and psychological handicaps, because kids raised in these unstable families will have fewer emotional and financial resources invested in their upbringing and education.

Unfortunately, we have a lot more tools to fight the joblessness than the arguably more important cultural changes. Even more unfortunately, our tools to fight the joblessness aren’t really that great, either.