The American dream tells the story of our children doing better than us. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for millennials. Despite usual markers of success – higher education and an era of high productivity – today’s young working people are not doing better than their older cohorts. A new report from the Center for American Progress looks at this phenomenon and has prescribed unions as one of the solutions.

A new report says that millennials are not faring as well as other generations, and union membership is part of the solution.

“Millennials have spent almost their entire working lives in a labor market that is loose — with too many job seekers and too few jobs — and where private-sector labor unions are almost entirely absent,” said the CAP report.

The report compared median earnings for a 30-year-old millennial in 2014 with a 30-year-old Gen Xer in 2004 and a 30-year-old baby boomer in 1984. It shows how the millennial generation, a group defined as those born between 1981 and 1997, should be the highest-paid generation in American history. They are 50 percent more likely to have finished college and are working in an economy that is 70 percent more productive. Yet their median compensation – wages combined with benefits – is the same as a baby boomer, and less than a Gen Xer.

If you factor in student loan debt and a precarious job market that no longer guarantees a well-paid job to go with that expensive degree, it’s easy to see how a union job could help. 

“This is the first time we haven’t done better than our parents,” said Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 Business Representative Jennifer Gray, a millennial. “At my age, my parents were on their second or third house. When I got mine, I took a hit.”

Even then, Gray says she was able to get the house because of the pay and other compensation provided to her through Local 1245’s collective bargaining agreement.

The Union Solution

It’s no secret that union members make more than their nonunion counterparts, or that they’re more likely to have benefits including health care and a pension. For women and people of color, the union advantage is even greater. Furthermore, someone can expect to accrue an additional $551,000 in wealth by the time she retires simply by joining a union, says the Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank.

But do millennials – a group more diverse than older generations – know this? Not necessarily.

Only about five percent of people aged 16 to 24 are union members, says Generation Progress, a publication affiliated with the Center for American Progress. The number goes up a bit for older millennials, to nearly 10 percent for 25 to 35-year-olds. Still, those numbers are lower than they were in 1980.

“They don’t always understand the benefits a union has to offer,” says Atlanta Local 613 member Yves St. Louis of the younger people he meets.

St. Louis, a millennial and journeyman electrician, and other Local 613 members are spreading the word. They are going to career fairs and trade expos and reaching out to high school students. He says some students have heard of unions, but not much. But when he tells them about the benefits, especially the starting salary of $60,000, they listen.

Boston Local 103 apprentice and fellow millennial Stephanie Jeffers is doing similar work with her RENEW chapter.

“We need to go out into our communities,” Jeffers said. “These kids need to see more of us, more people of color who are electricians and how we can relate to them.”

Gray says that among her peers, most know that a union job is a good job, they just don’t know how to get one. Part of that is not knowing about apprenticeships.

“A four-year degree is drilled into their heads,” Gray said. “It’s important for us to get into the schools. A lot of journeyman wiremen are second and third generation. The knowledge has been passed down. Most other people don’t even know what a lineman is.”

Millennials are the only age group in which a majority views labor unions favorably, says the Pew Research Center

Sharing the Wealth

 Keeping in line with data showing how millennials are civic-minded, something also found among union members, Jeffers, Gray and St. Louis all spoke of giving back to their communities and are eager to share their stories.

Gray’s parents are both union members, but it wasn’t until she experienced the difference between a union job and nonunion one that it really sank in.

“At Wells Fargo, you were on your own. It was what it was. No one was negotiating for you,” Gray said.

St. Louis says his mother encouraged him to apply for an apprenticeship when he took a break from college.

“It was right up my alley,” St. Louis said. “I liked the structure. It gave me some extra discipline and taught me things that college didn’t.”

It also helped him return to college and graduate.

Jeffers likened the union to a gym membership. “If you pay your dues and do the work, you’ll see the results. I came in green. But if you work hard and have the right mindset, you can really shine.”

Jeffers, St. Louis and Gray all spoke of the need to get more young people organized and involved. They want more of their peers to benefit like they have.

“A lot of my friends are struggling to figure it out,” Gray said. “We need to talk about ‘why union.’”

CAP estimates that by 2020, the first presidential election where all millennials will be of voting age, the generation will count 103 million members in the U.S. That’s a lot of potential votes for working families.   

“This is probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” St. Louis said of his union membership. “When you go from working three jobs to one, and you make more, it makes a huge difference.”

“We need unions. They’re the only ones at the heart of what people do,” Jeffers said. “You deserve to be able to take care of your family.”