Meet the Downsized Generation: Millennials Who Are Rewriting the Rules for Success

They graduated as the economy tanked, forcing twentysomethings to rethink their (and the country's) future.

By Barbara Kantrowitz for Reader's Digest Magazine | July 2013
ClockBrian Finke

The huge burden of college-loan debt—which could take decades to pay off—is driving young grads’ move to a simpler life. It could mean postponing many of the traditional milestones of adulthood, such as marriage and home ownership. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the share of younger households with debt of any kind fell to 
78 percent, the lowest level since the government began collecting this data in 1983. The only category of debt to increase was student loans, with 
40 percent of younger households carrying them in 2010, compared with only 26 percent nine years earlier.

That burden has also made young adults wary of taking on consumer debt. “I have enough loan debt accrued from my education. I would rather focus on that than on excess debt from another source,” says Katy Doe, one of Elizabeth’s former roommates. “Maybe I will think about getting a credit card after my loans are paid off. Or maybe not. Freedom from debt sounds pretty nice.”

The good news is, the members of the Downsized Generation have managed to retain a sense of optimism and remain both determined and adaptable. The Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, conducted last fall, found that nearly 90 percent of those ages 18 to 29 are confident that they will get what they want out of life. And fat bank accounts aren’t necessarily part of the equation. Whether they faced the faltering job market, watched their parents lose jobs, homes, and savings, or both, many of these young people are rethinking the values and ideals of previous generations. The trappings of status—supersize houses, pricey cars, a wallet full of credit cards—hold little allure for them. Instead, the Downsized Generation is creating a different version of the American Dream, one built on simplicity, service, loyalty, and responsibility.

“They are after more than money,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology who runs the poll, and the author of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? “They want to find work that they look forward to doing and that they believe does some good in the world.”

KATY: SIMPLICITY

KatyBrian Finke

Katy Doe, 21, a junior majoring in music education who is still at college in Potsdam, juggles schoolwork and three jobs: as a circulation assistant in a children’s library on campus, making fund-raising calls at a SUNY call center, and as a pianist accompanying vocalists. She remembers how her whole family panicked during her sophomore year at Potsdam when her mother lost her teaching job. Her financial aid was calculated on both parents working full-time (her father is a support technician in the science department at Vassar College). When that was no longer true, she says, “We just had to whip out the credit card.” Katy doesn’t have—or want—a credit card herself now, because, she says, “I don’t like the idea of this constant debt hanging over my head.” She has fought to become self-sufficient and to avoid asking her parents for money. When she graduates in 2014, she expects to owe $30,000 in student loans.

With school districts across the country cutting their music departments, Katy knows that pursuing her passion to become a music teacher could be even harder than working her way through college. But she’s up to the challenge and ready to search the United States for a position.

The last few years have been a journey of self-discovery for Katy. For one thing, she has learned to value simplicity. “I’m not a materialistic person who needs tons of clothes and designer bags,” she says. “I don’t need too much to live comfortably. It’s a nice feeling.” More important is her hard-earned sense of personal accomplishment. Asked what she’ll be thinking on graduation day, she says simply, “I did this myself.”

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  • Your Comments

    • Emily

      I’m fine with people living how they want, if they can afford it. If you make a million dollars, have the big house. If you want to live with no table, fine by me. Several of the people in this article are living with parents or working multiple jobs to pay off debt. This too is okay. My problem here is with the first woman, Elizabeth Kurtz. It is not okay to say you want to work for only $12,000 a year because you don’t need material things if your income is being supplemented by the US taxpayers. She’s right, she doesn’t need a huge home or luxury car, but you are not doing it by yourself when you receive food stamps. This is why some of this generation, as the article states, is sometimes “portrayed as lazy, self-absorbed, and 
immature.” It is not responsible to say, “I don’t need money, but I’ll take yours.”

      • rileymom08

        Emily, I am so with you! It seriously makes me question Reader’s Digest editorial staff for including her in this piece. Since when is it not only ok but lauded for her “downsizing” while she is taking tax payer’s money? MY money in fact! And she’s a saint for not taking her parents’ money, too? She is educated and able bodied. Seriously?

        • disappointed

          Seriously?! Yes. Think of the people that she is helping through Americorps. I guarantee you that those people are infinitely grateful that she is financially capable of devoting herself full-time to helping them. Americorps is actually a government program to begin with, so technically all of her money comes from the government, who is paying her for WORK DONE. She doesn’t necessarily WANT to work for $12,000/year. Obviously that’s not enough to get by on–but that’s what full-time work in community service is paid. Sad story.

    • Jake Robinson

      ” Her financial aid was calculated on both parents working full-time”

      Then her mother losing a job should have made it MORE likely that she would receive further financial aid. It’s not based on both parents working but parent’s annual income. Since the mother lost her job, the family received less income meaning the girl is more likely to receive financial aid. Strange.

      • Natalie Talbot

        I thought the same thing!

      • Bob Dole

        Yes, but the aid was already calculated for that year… Meaning her parents no longer have the money to contribute.

    • Greg Razzano

      It’s awesome to see these folks’ passion for life shine through.