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Census: Young Americans More Educated, Not Necessarily Better Off Than Parents

American young adults are more likely to have attended and graduated college today than in earlier generations, according to a new data analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau—but they are also more likely to be earning considerably less, and living either in poverty or with their parents than they were in 1980.

Census researchers found Americans ages 18 to 34 earn $2,000 less per year than earlier generations, after correcting for inflation, though the percentage graduating college has risen from a little more than 15 percent to more than 22 percent since 1980. 

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The Census this morning released a fascinating interactive mapping tool showing how divergent young people's experiences are becoming in different parts of the country. Massachusetts' young adults earn on average $6,500 more than they would have three decades ago, while young people in Michigan, Wyoming, and Alaska earn $9,000 less than they did in 1980. Similarly, college graduation rates in the Northeast and in Mid-Atlantic states like Maryland and Virginia have grown by double digits, but have flattened in the Midwest.

"Young adults' experiences may reflect a rise in inequality," said Census analyst Jonathan Vespa in a report accompanying the tool's release. "Since the 1980s, income inequality for households and families has gone up at the same time as the country as a whole has become more educated. The picture that emerges from these statistics reveals a generation of young adults who may be, at once, both better and worse off than their parents."

The data reveal interesting trends, including significant drops in both the percentage of young adults who marry and the proportion who are military veterans. 

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