11/28/2011 09:22 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2012

The State of Young America

A young veteran too mired in debt to take out any more loans, now relying on GI Bill benefits and working his way through community college. He works as a bouncer at night to make ends meet.

A couple struggling to raise a child. He works two jobs, 14.5-hour work days. She stays at home and takes care of their baby, putting off dreams of a college degree, or even building a career, because the cost of child care would eat up her wages.

A young woman from an immigrant family, cleaning houses as she slowly but surely works toward her dream of working in the biomedical field.

These are the faces of a generation. It's become common to hear the prediction that this cohort of young adults will be the first to be worse off than their parents. Several months ago, Young Invincibles and Demos set out on a bold project to discover whether that dire prediction could in fact become reality.

We dug through the most recent data, commissioned a groundbreaking poll of 18- to 34-year-olds on economic policy issues, and struck out across the country to talk to Millennials face to face. The results of this search are included in the State of a Young America, a report that captures the research, polling, and personal accounts to tell a story of frustration and struggle in the face of downward mobility, but ultimately, a story of a generation that still believes the American Dream is out there for them, and that through education and hard work, they can find it.

Yet the data certainly paint a stark picture. The Recession has been a devastating new low, but it is unfortunately a continuation of longer-term trends that have the potential to make this generation of young adults the lost generation. Wages have been falling for decades, especially among young men. Youth unemployment is nearly twice the national average. More young people enroll in college, but a smaller percentage graduate. About two thirds of those college enrollees take on debt -- and often significant amounts. It's no wonder that about half of 18- to 34-year-olds expect to be worse off than their parents.

But statistics only tell part of the story. It was important to understand how the economic conditions affected Millennials' everyday lives and their decisions about their future. So we asked them. Unsurprisingly, both our youth roundtables and polling found that the longer-term trends and the harsh Recession have had a major impact on young people. An astonishing number of young adults struggle with significant student and personal debt. They take part-time jobs below their skill level. A significant number are delaying marriage (25 percent), having kids (30 percent), buying a home (46 percent), and pursuing college or training (38 percent) as they try and wait out the economic downturn.

At the same time, the poll also found considerable reason for hope about this generation and its potential. Across the board, young people value hard work and family. They recognize the importance of getting an education in this rapidly changing economy, and many dream to one day start a business of their own. And they still, overwhelmingly and despite present economic conditions, believe in the American Dream.

Unsurprisingly, Millennials also believe that changes are needed to give everyone a fair shot at the middle class. They know that pursuing a higher education should not put students into a lifetime of debt. And raising a family should not be the equivalent of a lifetime of economic struggle. This month, members of Young Invincibles joined partners, as well as Senators Cardin and Wyden, for a Jobs for Young America Day on the Hill, to remind our leaders that they, too, need to do their part to put our generation back to work and back on track. If the Occupy Wall Street movement tells us anything, it's that young people understand that there is a better way of doing things out there, and that there can be a better future than there is at present. Indeed, it's up to all of us to make sure that we get there.