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Millennials, who will soon take the reins from baby boomers as America’s largest living adult generation, face a growing epidemic of income inequality and limited economic mobility.
According to recent IRS data, more than 55 percent of adults ages 18 to 35 made under $25,000 annually. Just 9.5 percent earned more than $75,000. Though the younger people in the 18-26 set tend to work part-time and service jobs, more than 80 percent of these young millennials earned less than $25,000 per year.
Coupled with unprecedented amounts of student loan debt and a lack of healthy investments because of cautious mindsets, many millennials are “anxious” and “fearful” about their financial situation, according to a recent study by Northwestern Mutual.
The change in wages over over time
Are these numbers really any different from previous generations though?
Even in decades past, young adults’ lower earnings were at least in part attributed to time spent acquiring degrees or the fact that they’re just starting out in their careers. It makes sense that the majority of adults in this age group would earn less and then reach peak earnings later on.
Looking at historical data, though, that explanation may not tell the full story. A recent study by Resolution Foundation found that income growth between generations in eight “high-income” countries, including the United States, continues to slow. When Gen Xers reached ages 30-34, they saw a 30 percent income increase compared with the generation before, but millennials’ income level at the same age fell by 4 percent in comparison with Gen X.
Looking further back, a Young Invincibles’ analysis of Federal Reserve data shows that millennials’ net worth is only half what baby boomers held at the same age. Today’s millennials also earn 20 percent less in constant dollars than 25-34 year olds in 1989, when the demographic was populated by the youngest baby boomers.
A 2017 study by researchers at Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley put the data into a bigger long-term perspective. They found that absolute economic mobility, or the ability for children to earn more than their parents, has dropped by more than 40 percent since the 1940s.
Whereas baby boomers and the silent generation were almost certain (92 percent) to earn more than their parents, due to economic booms, increasingly accessible education and emerging industries, the study found that children born in the 1980s and beyond only have a 50 percent chance of attaining the same “American dream” of economic mobility.
The causes of the mobility gap
The university researchers who studied this mobility gap credit both slow growth in Gross Domestic Product and greater inequality in distribution of that growth for the difference over time.
In other words, it’s true that the economy has been growing more slowly, but the bigger issue is how that growth is distributed much more unevenly than it used to be.
When coupled with ever-increasing student loan debt, rising underemployment rates among college graduates, growing housing costs and astronomical healthcare prices, millennials’ economic outlook looks less-than-ideal. For some young people, the “American dream” of their parents’ generation can seem far out of reach.
So what can millennials do?
Facing lower odds of rising in income level compared with prior generations, what can millennials and emerging Generation Z workers do to keep up?
According to analysis of families over generations between 1989 and 2013 by the Federal Reserve, the most effective way young families can increase their probabilities of earning wealth over their lifetimes is by emulating older families’ decision-making and investing processes. Investing in a retirement plan, saving an emergency fund and minimizing debt can all help you reach long-term goals no matter your starting income.
At a personal level, take advantage of the technology more readily available than ever before. When facing underemployment or underperforming wage growth, the side hustle market can be a great asset. Not only can you make extra money driving for Uber or delivering Seamless orders; you can develop skills related to your career by taking on Upwork projects or building an online freelance portfolio.
It’s important to stay or become knowledgeable. Keep up with financial trends that may affect you. Talk with family and friends about how they make their earnings work for them. Consider working with a certified financial advisor to develop a plan for your financial future.
Toward broader solutions
As far as big picture impact, researchers have proposed macro-solutions that could help young people catch up and shrink the gap, much of which comes down to policy changes. Young Invincibles stresses the importance of investment in public higher education and technical degree programs, and support and education for young workers struggling to either purchase or rent a home.
As millennials prepare to become the largest living generation, they are better-suited than ever to revive the “American dream” for both themselves, through health financial practices, and for future generations of workers