Why your life feels more like ‘Girls’ than ‘Sex and the City’

Any 24-year-old hoofing it up three flights of stairs to her shared Bushwick loft knows intuitively that life as a New York City 20-something is a hustle. Now she can point to more than just episodes of “Girls” and “Broad City” to back that notion up.

New York City millennials are earning 20% less in inflation-adjusted wages than 18 to 29-year-olds were making in 2000, according to a report released Tuesday by the office of the New York City Comptroller, Scott Stringer.

Self-interested millennials aren’t the only ones who should be troubled by this statistic. New York’s economy relies in part on the success of its young people, Stringer said in an interview, and if they continue to experience historically low wages, the city may suffer the consequences. “We need to make sure that all of them have a fair and fighting chance to make it in the city,” he said. “We have to pay more attention to this generation.”

Most of us aren’t making enough these days to have a closet full of Jimmy Choos.

It might seem tempting to blame millennials’ low wages on the Great Recession, but the report notes that the wage gap is actually highest (in percentage terms) between the 19 to 22-year-olds of today and their peers in 2000. In other words, the pay gap between students who graduated during the depths of the recession and their young adult peers from 2000 is actually smaller than for those who are entering the workforce in a relatively rebounding recovery. This suggests that “there has been a fundamental, and perhaps quickening, deterioration of the earnings opportunities available to young workers in New York City,” the authors write.

That may be in large part because today’s young New Yorkers are working in fields that pay less than their older counterparts. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of young workers in high-wage industries like finance and legal services dropped by about 4,900, while the number of young workers in mid-wage industries such as media and arts & entertainment grew by 16,300. But that pales in comparison to the boost in young New Yorkers working in low-wage jobs — 83,100.

More than 60% of these young, low-wage workers attended some college and one-third have a bachelor’s degree. That means they may be contending with not only New York City rents — which rose 75% between 2000 and 2012, according to a separate report from Stringer’s office — but also student debt on relatively low-wages. Student loan borrowers in New York state have $77.5 billion in outstanding debt as of January 2015, according to The White House, the third highest of any state.

Of course today’s young people do have some benefits not available to previous generations. For one, they’re the most educated in history. In addition, they may have more opportunities to pursue the work they’re passionate about in a freelance (and perhaps less high-paying) capacity thanks to the advent of universal health care and a variety of new technologies.

Still, federal, state and local officials “missed the boat” on helping New York City millennials cope during the Great Recession, Stringer said. Now they need to make up for lost time. “We’ve got to make sure we play close attention in the coming years,” he said. “Every generation is supposed to do better than the generation before.”

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