Instead of hoverboards and flying cars, real progress should mean solving inequality

Redefining “progress.”
Redefining “progress.”
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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Twenty-six years ago, the film Back to the Future II made some incredible predictions about 2015. When its main character, Marty McFly, traveled to this year, he saw a world where hoverboards and flying cars served as main forms of transportation, where people wore self-lacing shoes and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

Parts of this vision may soon come true. Lexus claims to have cracked the code to construct hoverboards, Aeromobil hopes to sell its first flying cars in 2017, and Nike says it will produce power laces later in 2015. (As for the Cubs, who haven’t been to the World Series in 70 years, maybe not).

The people of 2015—millenials—are famously open-minded and innovative, liberated and entrepreneurial. Some women in this age group are much more likely to go to college than their predecessors, and both women and men of this generation are redefining workplaces with a focus on work-life balance and a concern for diversity. Millennial stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Taylor Swift are speaking out against the structural issues that prevent equality.

But in other ways, progress has stalled. Remarkably, while we can make flying cars and self-tying shoes and digital startups, millennials also face gender and racial disparities that are as striking as any increased opportunities.

The racial wealth gap in the United States continues to be large and has grown since the recession. The net worth of white Americans is now 13 times greater than that of black Americans and 10 times greater than that of Latinos. The nation has also made little advancement in closing the wage gap between men and women in recent years. At the rate of change we’ve seen since 1960, the gender gap is not projected to close until 2058 (pdf, p. xviii).

When it comes to economic security, millennial women fare worse than men their age. Although more women of this generation are getting college degrees than men, these women are more likely than their male counterparts to live in poverty, have lower earnings and savings and face higher student debt burdens (pdf, p. 7).

For many in this group, going to college is not even a possibility. More than three in ten young adults have not advanced beyond high school. About one in five are poor. Among young black, Latino and Native American adults, poverty rates are especially high. And for every racial and ethnic group, women are more likely than men to be poor.

Geography matters, too. In Mississippi, about 75% of millennial women do not have a bachelor’s degree and 34% live in poverty. In Maryland and Alaska, the best-ranking states on young women’s poverty, about one in seven women of this generation are poor.

These data indicate that while for some young adults equality and opportunity are becoming more and more a reality, for others they are barely a dream. And that dream may be dimming as the opportunity gap continues to grow.

Many people have pointed to important economic reforms that can address the widening gap—such as raising the minimum wage, increasing college affordability, investing in public education and fully enforcing equal pay and equal employment opportunity laws.

But in addition to economic policies that help to bridge the inequality gap, we need policies and programs that develop social networks and supports. This may include community-based supports that strengthen social ties by providing space, connections and networking opportunities, as well as support services like child care and transportation that enable young women and men to complete education or job training programs.

One study of a California-based nonprofit organization dedicated to building local supports and social networks for low-income women found that many program participants wanted to attend college but had limited knowledge about how to realize that dream. Only after talking with friends or acquaintances who were enrolled did they overcome the “how to” barrier and enroll, putting themselves on a path to experience the positive financial and other benefits that education brings.

A multifaceted approach that includes building social networks and supports as well as economic reforms can help us get back to a future where all young adults—and not just some—can flourish in a world that offers them improved opportunities and tangible signs of progress.