As the nation climbs slowly out of the Great Recession, young adults appear to be having the toughest time of any age group gaining a foothold in the recovering economy. Those difficulties, in turn, are shaping their decisions about careers, schooling, marriage and parenthood, according to a new report.
The analysis by the Pew Research Center, released Thursday, examines the effects of the recession on the lives and attitudes of young Americans ages 18 to 34.
"The economy may be improving, but in spite of the recent decline in unemployment, young people are still really struggling," said Kim Parker, associate director of Pew's Social and Demographic Trends Project and a coauthor of the study.
The tough times are forcing changes in young adults' daily lives and in their longer-term plans.
Nearly half say that in recent years they've taken a job they didn't really want, to pay the bills. More than a third have gone back to school because of the poor economy. About a third have postponed either their plans to get married or have a child, and one in four say they have moved back in with their parents after living independently. And fewer than half of young people who are now employed say they have the education and training necessary to get ahead in their jobs.
With government economic data showing a record gap in employment levels between the young and all working-age adults, the Pew survey found that 41% of Americans believe that young adults have been hit harder by the recession than other age groups, while 29% said middle-aged adults have had the toughest time, and 24% said those 65 and older have had the worst of it.
Large majorities of those surveyed also said it was harder for today's young adults to reach basic financial goals that their parents' generation took for granted, including saving for the future, paying for college or buying a home.
Young people themselves are also acutely aware of their struggles, the study showed. Half of those 18 to 34 said their age group has suffered the most because of the nation's weak economy.
Nonetheless, Parker noted that young adults were overwhelmingly upbeat about their futures; nearly 9 in 10 said they either have or earn enough money now, or anticipate that they will later in life.
"We don't know if that's grounded in anything, but that response was one of the things we thought was so interesting," she said. "In spite of all the challenges they're facing, they're still really optimistic about their future."
Pew based the study on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, along with findings from a telephone poll of 2,049 adults interviewed between Dec. 6 and Dec. 19, 2011.