Lauren Reyes always dreamed of opening her own hair salon, but it was terror that actually drove her to do it.
It was the day before Thanksgiving in 2016. Reyes, then 30 and living in Atlanta, had just left her job at a salon unexpectedly. She was feeling desperate — her husband, Armando, an immigrant from Honduras, had applied for his green card. Reyes needed to prove that she could financially support him.
Financial fear was familiar to Reyes. Back in 2008, she had graduated with a sociology degree and entered the workforce during a recession. Taking a guidance counselor’s advice, she went into the service industry and spent the good part of a decade as a hairdresser, stringing together minimum wage and slightly above minimum wage jobs.
But now the stakes were higher — Reyes had to support not only her husband, but also his 7-year-old daughter, Isabella, who was still in Honduras. Armando hadn’t seen her in two years.
As the rest of the country prepared for Thanksgiving dinner, Reyes scrambled to find salon space to start her one-woman business. Armando found an available suite online; Reyes signed the lease in tears. Less than two months later, Lauren Reyes Salon opened next to a Panera Bread in the Ansley Mall north of downtown Atlanta. Reyes had $45 in her bank account.
Soon, Reyes was doing well enough to hire another stylist. The shop stayed open even when Reyes was displaced from her home for three months after an apartment fire. Armando and Isabella got their green cards; Isabella came to live with them. And Reyes let herself dream again, imagining the glamourous 10-chair salon she’d open one day.
Then, the pandemic hit. Reyes closed her shop for seven weeks, deferred small business loans and car payments, and tried — and failed — to receive any government aid for her salon. “It’s the scariest thing we’ve ever gone through,” says Reyes.
At the beginning May, when Georgia opened up, Reyes was back at work. Her days are now defined by following sanitary precautions. But something else has changed, too.
“I’ve had a lot of dreams of expanding and growing my business — I have zero inclination to do so after this,” says Reyes, who is now 34. Reyes has been able to adapt her two-chair salon relatively easily to the state’s restrictions of operating at half-capacity, but she sees the larger salons struggling to restructure.
“If I lose everything tomorrow, how am I still going to pay for this? If I can’t answer that, I can’t take that on in my life,” Reyes says. “I don’t want to say I’m operating out of fear, but out of competency.”
Still plagued by the fallout from the Great Recession, millennials like Reyes are facing the worst economic odds in history. With depressed incomes, high student debt and few assets, the generation already had dramatically less financial security than previous generations had at their age even before the coronavirus pandemic. An analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis last year found that a 32-year-old’s predicted wealth in 2016 was 41 percent less than a 32-year-old’s in 1989.
As millennials have suffered the majority of job losses, the pandemic economy has only exacerbated this generational gulf. And unlike Gen Z-ers, millennials don’t have as much time to recover. Their uncertain future is now largely defined not by dreams and passions, once hallmarks of their generation, but just by getting by.
“Crises like this, they expose the fault lines in society that were not given enough attention,” says Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University.
Too many of these fault lines fracture the ground beneath millennial women’s feet. Between child-care responsibilities and job loss, women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic blow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women suffered 55 percent of the jobs lost in April, largely because the recession has wiped out many female-dominated industries such as hospitality, leisure and education.
Women of color are bearing these job losses disproportionately. While women had an unemployment rate in April of 15.5 percent, the rate increased to 16.4 percent for black women and 20.2 percent for Latinas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The current pandemic’s losses fall on an already “flatlining of wealth holdings for communities of color,” says Reid Cramer, a senior fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, whose work has focused on millennials. “The Great Recession really wiped out a lot of gains that black and Hispanic families had made over the previous decades,” he says.
Ana Hernández Kent, a policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has also analyzed just how wide the millennial wealth gap still is — while millennial white households had a median wealth of $20,100 in 2016, black households had $1,300 and Hispanic households $12,300.
In the last decade, women had gained 11.1 million jobs. “The pandemic literally wiped out every single one of those jobs in one month,” says Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women’s Law Center.
C. Nicole Mason, the president and chief executive officer of Institute for Women’s Policy Research, says she’s “hoping the pandemic doesn’t curtail some of the progress — even if glacial — and erase the gains women have made.”
But many gains have been lost already. Kent points out that millennial mothers had the same unemployment rate (3.6 percent) as millennial fathers in February. By April, the unemployment rate for millennial mothers had plunged to 14.2 percent compared to millennial fathers’ rate at 10.5 percent.
Simone Bailey is part of that 14.2 percent of unemployed millennial moms. A 38-year-old single mom in New Jersey, Bailey was laid off from her job in mid-March. It was her first manager position at a new Marriott hotel that was about to open.
“It’s my baby,” Bailey says of the restaurant and bar she had helped set up — from the bar tab to the first bottles of alcohol. “[It] never had a chance.” The hotel was supposed to open April 1, but they laid everyone off just two weeks earlier.
Bailey, who was furloughed from her part-time job at a Hilton hotel as well, had taken a pay cut for the manager position, in hopes the title would launch her further in her career. As she puts it: “I took the pay cut in order to go backwards in order to go forward. There’s actually no forward right now.”
In between reminding her two sons to get on their school Zoom calls, Bailey sews face masks and creates designs for shirts and hoodies to sell on Etsy. “The pandemic literally happened after income tax season, so I had my savings I was putting away. I had to exhaust that in order to live,” says Bailey, who mostly lives paycheck to paycheck. “Had that not been there, I had no idea where we would be.”
This isn’t an uncommon situation for other millennial women. Kent found that 17 percent lack money or other resources for an emergency expense of $400 (compared to 14 percent of millennial men). Despite common perceptions, this minimal financial buffer is not for lack of trying to save, says Cramer, the senior fellow at New America.
“The problem is they’ve just had really poor incomes and the rise of things like the gig economy … and fewer public benefits means that they’re exposed to a lot more economic risks,” he says.
Now, an already risk-averse generation of women has repositioned their dreams for the future and are preparing for the worst. Lea Woods, 26, used all of her savings to pay rent on her apartment in Washington, D.C., when her roommate moved out of the city because of the pandemic. “That experience and the recession hammered home the need to have a robust emergency savings account,” she says.
Woods counts herself lucky to still have her job as a development associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, but she’s frustrated for her generation’s future. “It feels as though you can be doing everything right — you can go to college and … get a job and work to pay down your student loans and work and work and work and try and save, but you still just don’t seem to have any money. At no point in my life can I see myself buying a house,” says Woods.
Woods has come to think differently about other longer-term goals, too, like starting a family.
Indeed, the typical American Dream has shifted for this generation, particularly for millennials of color who already found that promise of upward mobility more difficult to access. “People used to want to aspire to things like getting married, having a community, buying a home,” says Cramer. But the timing of the Great Recession and the pandemic have made “financial security its own aspiration.”
Cramer notes that millennials will have even more “responsibility that doesn’t match their finances” as they start to care for aging parents in addition to their children, a responsibility that will likely fall on women, who tend to shoulder the majority of caregiving. According to the Center for American Progress, two-thirds of mothers are either the sole, primary or co- breadwinners for their families — but, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances data, single women on average still own just 40 cents for every dollar of wealth owned by men. That’s less than half of women’s 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. For women of color, that pay gap is significantly larger.
“The starting line for millennials has been pushed back so far,” says Tucker, the director of research at the National Women’s Law Center. “People are just inching along at this point. … We’re not moving at the same pace that a lot of our prior generations have.”
But while millennials may not be financially better off than their parents, there are different definitions of “better off.” Woods points to the way her professional experience as a person of color has been quite different than her dad’s in the 1980s.
For Reyes, it’s acknowledging her freedom compared to her mom’s, who grew up in a conservative Mormon household. “She says I’m her ‘out loud,’” says Reyes.
Back in February, Reyes laughed when her mom told her to stock up for the pandemic, but today Reyes is preparing for a catastrophic future, too. Abandoning hopes for opening a bigger salon, Reyes is focusing on learning techniques like balayage, so that if something were to happen to her salon, she could rely on her side gig working for hair product brands as an educator. She doesn’t think of it as holding herself back from her dreams so much as redirecting her energy.
“[I will position myself as an educator] very intentionally so that nobody can lay me off,” Reyes says. She lets out a breath. “I’ll never put myself in a position again in my life when I can be laid off,” she repeats.
For the sake of her 11-year-old daughter, Isabella, Reyes has been careful to keep calm and positive about the current crisis. During their time at home, she helped Isabella start her own business selling mugs on Etsy with sayings like “Make Your Own Magic.”
Reyes knows she won’t be able to pay for her daughter’s college, and this way, Isabella can start saving on her own.