President Obama's top economic adviser is coming to town on Wednesday. And millennials: He wants you.
Jason Furman, a Gen Xer who is considered one of the nation's most brilliant economic minds, wants to hear concerns about college debt, how the "gig" economy is changing job prospects and even about saving for retirement — something that seems utterly nonsensical to legions of young adults.
"Economists haven't figured all these questions out," said Furman, who will join U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., for a 10:30 a.m. forum at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "And they don't always ask the right questions."
Millennials are that massive group of up-and-comers, now aged 16 to 36, who began reaching adulthood around 2000.
As with the baby boomers before them, the sheer size of this generation will shape the economy in the decades ahead as more of them grow up, join the workforce, start families, settle into communities and buy houses.
They have come of age at a difficult time, struggling to launch careers during the most punishing financial downturn in 75 years.
Burdened by student loans and a sluggish job market, they have faced well-documented challenges.
With rising numbers of young people participating in the so-called "gig" economy, which relies on short-term contract and freelance work, Klobuchar and Furman said they see a strong correlation between millennials' current financial pressures and the need to find policies and programs that encourage young adults to plan for a secure future.
Traditional workplace benefits, such as family leave and retirement accounts, must become more flexible and portable, they said.
"Millennials clearly are coming into the workforce at a time when they don't have safety nets we used to have," said Klobuchar, who has championed legislation on tax credits to reward more people for saving for retirement as well as efforts to make college more affordable and student loans more understandable.
"The policies are about taking some aspects of the existing safety net, updating it and making sure it can apply to the millennials today, many of whom work in the gig economy," she said.
Klobuchar, the ranking Senate member of the joint economic committee, has worked with Furman on a number of economic issues. This is Klobuchar's second Minnesota gathering focused on millennial issues, though she notes that as the parent of a millennial, she has firsthand insight.
Nikki Trummer, 24, has a clear message for Klobuchar. "I'm not asking for anyone to pay my loans for me," said Trummer, who has about $140,000 in college debt. "I just don't want anyone else to experience what I am experiencing. When you're 18 and fresh out of high school, you should not be making huge financial decisions."
Trummer took out loans for out-of-state tuition at the University of Missouri, and her debt built up quickly. She since has returned to South Central College in North Mankato, while also working 30 hours a week at two or three jobs. Her plan is to complete an associate degree this fall, and work toward a degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018.
"I don't consider myself to be a dumb person," said Trummer, a panelist at the forum, "but I feel dumb for getting myself into this situation. But I was doing what the loan officers, financial aid and my peers were telling me to do."
Joyce Ester is listening.
The cost of college is the No. 1 concern at Normandale Community College, where Ester has been president for almost two years. Addressing it requires multiple approaches, including offering more targeted degrees and short-term certificate programs that might lead students to higher-paying jobs.
"Today's college population is different from what most people remember from when they were in college," Ester said. "The solutions may be great for an 18-year-old but may not work for a 30-year-old."
Millennials, who make up 28 percent of Minnesota's population, are a "consumer generation," she said. "They want to know, 'What am I getting for this?' They think if they're not getting a good job, college isn't worth it."
Normandale has adjusted by working with high schools to offer college courses at no added cost to students and their families. Last year more than a thousand students took classes worth 19,000 college credits, Ester said. In some cases, it's possible for the brightest of students to start earning college credits in the ninth grade, and to complete an associate degree before they toss their high school mortar board into the air.
Furman said there's a strong correlation between millennials' current financial pressures and the need to find policies and programs that encourage young adults to plan for a secure future.
He speaks with the president about economic policy in face-to-face meetings almost every week and via "memo" several times a week. Information gathered at such forums aren't just for show.
"It makes it back [to the president] very directly," Furman said. "Meetings like this are very helpful in combining with other research to understand what is actually going on, but also to inform the questions we need to be more worried about."