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Young New Yorkers' Finances Are Extremely Fucked

Since 2000, real wages are down, rents are up, and more young people are being forced to take low-paying jobs in the retail or hospitality industries. So why do we live here, again?

Harry Cheadle

Harry Cheadle

If you're a young New Yorker and feel surrounded by people who are overeducated and either underemployed or underpaid or both, if it seems like your friends are struggling more than the generation before them, if it seems like you are all just kind of drifting aimlessly, well, you're right to feel that way, because that's exactly what's going on, according to a new report about millennial New Yorkers' economic prospects that came out this week.

Issued by the office of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the 38-page report pretty much confirms what everyone who is young and living in the city already knew: For 18- to 29-year-olds, real wages are down and living expenses are up, but fresh batches of transplants keep coming here anyway.

When the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, it hit everywhere, but it was especially hard on New York: Unemployment among 18- to 29-year-olds spiked to 18 percent in 2009, and though that number has fallen along with general unemployment statistics across the country, it was still above 9 percent in 2015.

If you, like me, lived in New York during that time, you'll recall that things fucking sucked back then. A few months before I graduated college in 2009, I got laid off from Starbucks, and my post-graduation job hunt consisted mainly of trying to sort out which Craigslist jobs were outright scams and which were actually legit, if crappy, employment opportunities. I wrote copy for a never-actually-launched real estate website, I tried out unsuccessfully for a spot in a wine bar's kitchen, I sold comedy tickets on the street for a day before quitting—when I got a job at a call center and kept it for several months before the entire staff got canned for budget reasons, it felt like a triumph.

The recession never looked or felt as bad as the Great Depression—there were no visible breadlines, no shantytowns springing up on the edges of the least fashionable boroughs. But college grads, especially those of us who ended up with less-than-useful degrees, found the city closing itself to us. Good jobs were rare, and often we were competing against older, more experienced workers who had been downsized. The number of long-term unemployed (meaning those without a job for six months or more) in NYC went from 55,000 in 2007 to 192,000 in 2012. Millennials of color had it worse than their white counterparts; in 2011, 6.5 percent of young white people were unemployed compared to 13.4 percent and 17.1 percent of their Hispanic and black counterparts, respectively.

Those grim stats have fallen somewhat, and there are more jobs today than there used to be. The problem is that, for the most part, the jobs aren't any good. Poorly paid industries like retail and hospitality, according to the report, are employing more young people than they did in 2000, while fewer young people are working in media or finance. The comptroller's report doesn't mention the "gig economy," or the phenomenon of an increasing number of people earning a living either wholly or partially through things like Uber or TaskRabbit, but a disproportionate number of young people nationwide are taking those "jobs," so it seems likely that plenty of New Yorkers have gone this route too. All this is true despite the fact that four fifths of millennials between 23 and 29 have at least a bachelor's degree. Predictably, median real annual income (income adjusted for inflation) for an employed 29-year-old dropped from $56,000 in 2000 to $50,300 in 2014.

That's a lot of numbers even for you college grads, so let me put it in more understandable terms: If you are young and living in the city, you are fucked.

You are fucked because even as those wages have dropped and the good jobs have become scarcer, the city has become more expensive. Renters under 30 paid a median rent of $1,012 in 2000, and that went up to $1,400 in 2014. You are fucked because student debt is rising across the country—by nearly 10 percent a year from 2005 to 2014 for borrowers under 30. And you will continue to be fucked, because—well, I'll let the report explain:

"College graduates from the Class of 2008 and after have experienced only a severe recession and a tepid recovery during their working lives. With intensified competition for entry-level work opportunities, their counterparts who did not attend or finish college have faced even greater obstacles to finding suitable employment, and for those who didn't finish high school, the employment opportunities have turned even bleaker. Moreover, recent economic research has found that for young people who enter recessionary labor markets, the market effects can slow down their career advancement and earnings for years or even decades afterward."

What's more fucked is that despite this terrible climate for young workers, New York City has that same old shiny appeal for the young who think that they are different, that they are the ones who will beat the odds and live the glamorous lives they deserve. In 2014, there were over 1 million more 18- to 29-year-olds living in this town than in 2000, according to the report. Every year since 2010, about 88,000 have come here from other parts of the US, and 85,000 have gone back to real America, or at least LA.

The people who come here aren't wrong that there are lots of opportunities here for creative people—for all its faults, New York still has Broadway, the bulk of the publishing industry, a good slice of TV and film production, and a gaggle of media companies, both old and new. But the people who leave also have their reasons, and good ones too. New York seems more crowded and more expensive every year, and therefore less hospitable to the young and broke. It's become impossible to deny that it's increasingly difficult to scratch out a living while hoping you get that book contract/record deal/star role you've been banking on. It's still true that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, but if you can make it anywhere, why in God's name would you want to be in New York?