Stop saying “the younger generation” when referring to recent graduates

I hate to beat a dead horse on student debt, but I keep seeing unchecked fallacy after unchecked fallacy filling the blogs and news copy. In one prevalent fallacy, writers and commentators refer to college graduates as “the younger generation” or something similar. That is, they cast student debt as a generational issue affecting the youth, perhaps hoping to feed the rather silly narrative of generational conflict. There are two problems with this.

First, college graduates make up only a minority fraction of the younger generation. According to Census Data, only 14.8% of people aged 18-24 had an Associate’s Degree or better in 2011 (the number is 26.2% for those aged 18-29). It goes without saying that the plight of a small fraction of the younger generation does not represent the plight of the younger generation itself. The overwhelming majority of those in the younger generation do not have more than a high-school degree. Those who do have college degrees come disproportionately from affluent backgrounds, and — if trends hold — will make much more than their non-degreed counterparts over the course of their lifetimes. Treating a relatively affluent and privileged subset of the youth as representative of the youth generation is a tad bit ridiculous.

Second, a non-trivial number of college students are non-traditional and not of the younger generation. Relying on a restricted data-set of 114,000 undergraduate students from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Center for Law and Social Policy found that 36% of 2008 undergraduates were over 25 years of age, a number that was expected to grow. So referring to recent graduate and student debt issues as issues of the younger generation fails in both directions. The overwhelming majority of the youth are not recent college graduates, and a pretty significant number of recent college graduates — assuming the older, non-traditional students do indeed graduate — are not the youth.