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A Silent Majority Of Undereducated And Underemployed Millennials

Fabianie Andre with her 3-year-old daughter, Leilah, at their home in suburban Boston. Andre is one of many millennials who lack a college education.
Asma Khalid
Fabianie Andre with her 3-year-old daughter, Leilah, at their home in suburban Boston. Andre is one of many millennials who lack a college education.

This story is part of the New Boom series on millennials in America.

Millennials are often mocked as Starbucks baristas with Ivy League educations.

And while they are the best-educated generation to date, data from the Pew Research Center show about two-thirds of millennials between ages 25 and 32 lack a bachelor's degree.

That majority is often ignored in conversations about millennials.

This narrative is alive and well in Boston's Harvard Square, where church bells chime as millennials sip lattes and drift out of bookstores. But take a walk down the road, and the story changes.

A few blocks away, Fabianie Andre rings up groceries at a supermarket that caters to these college students. She's 31 — part of the same millennial generation — but she lives in a harshly different economic world than the elite students she serves.

"I needed the extra money," Andre says. "Like, I was just struggling too much, so I felt like I needed something to supplement my income."

She works at the store on the weekends for minimum wage in addition to her job Monday through Friday, where she processes authorizations for an insurance company.

In some ways, Andre is very much a typical millennial — she's not married and admits she doesn't go to church as often as she did growing up.

But where Andre's story veers from the stereotype is that she doesn't have a college degree. She immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti when she was 5.

"I didn't have any help from my parents or anyone else to support me," she says. "So I felt like I needed to work full time, as opposed to going to school full time."

Andre had wanted to become an elementary school teacher but dropped out of college before senior year. She had an academic scholarship, but she still needed money for rent and other basic living expenses.

Not having a college degree is true for a majority of millennials, according to the Pew Research Center. In other words, Andre's story is the norm even though it doesn't match the popular myth.

"There's been a lot of attention paid to the adversities facing college-educated millennials, but generally the college-educated young adults, they're doing better than earlier generations of college-educated young adults," says Richard Fry, the lead researcher on a Pew report about the rising cost of not going to college.

His study finds that millennials with only a high school diploma make roughly $17,500 less per year than a millennial with a four-year college degree.

"Among the less educated, it's not simply that they're trailing behind their college-educated counterparts; it's that they're doing worse off than earlier generations of less educated adults," he says.

Andre lives in a one-bedroom apartment in an immigrant enclave of suburban Boston.

She is a single mom to her 3-year-old daughter, Leilah. Most days, she leaves her place at 7 a.m., drops Leilah off at preschool and drives another half-hour to her weekday job where she makes about $38,000 a year.

"I definitely find myself stressing a lot about money," Andre says. "I struggle in making ends meet at the end of the month. I usually make it by the skin of my teeth."

But a few times she hasn't made it, and she had to borrow money from a friend to pay rent.

She says she would probably be making more money if she had a degree.

"I'd probably be teaching. I'd probably be doing something that I love as opposed to doing something that I have to do to sustain myself and a life for my daughter and I," she says.

Like many of her peers, Andre wants more than a job. She wants a career.

But that's not easy when you're caring for a child and working seven days a week. Still, she's upbeat about her financial future. And that's true for the 85 percent of millennials who say they either have enough money to live the lives they want, or they expect to in the future.

Copyright 2020 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.