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Lost Generations? Wealth Building Among the Young

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Document date: March 15, 2013
Released online: March 15, 2013
Lost Generations? Wealth Building Among the Young

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.


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The young have been faring poorly in the job market for some time now, a condition only exacerbated by the Great Recession. Now comes disturbing news that they are also falling behind in their share of society's wealth and their rate of wealth accumulation. 

        Signe Mary McKernan, Caroline Ratcliffe, Sisi Zhang, and I recently examined how different age groups have shared in the rising net wealth of the U.S. economy. Despite the recent recession, our economy in 2010 was about twice as rich both in terms of average incomes and net worth as it was 27 years earlier in 1983. But not everyone shared equally in that growth.

Younger generations have been particularly left behind. Roughly speaking, those under age 46 today, generally the Gen X and Gen Y cohorts, hadn't accumulated any more wealth by the time they reached their 30s and 40s than their parents did over a quarter-century ago. By way of contrast, baby boomers and other older generations, or those over age 46, shared in the rising economy—they approximately doubled their net worth.

Older Generations Accumulate, Younger Generations Stagnate

Change in Average Net Worth by Age Group, 1983–2010


Source: Authors' tabulations of the 1983, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, and 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF).
Notes: All dollar values are presented in 2010 dollars and data are weighted using SCF weights. The comparison is between people of the same age in 1983 and 2010.


Households usually add to their saving as they age, while income and wealth rise over time with economic growth. If these two patterns apply consistently and proportionately, then one might expect to see, say, a parent generation accumulate $100,000 by the time its members were in their 30s and $300,000 in their 60s, whereas their children might accumulate $200,000 by their 30s and $600,000 by their 60s.

This normal pattern no longer holds for the younger among us. However, this reversal didn't just start with the Great Recession; it seems to have begun even before the turn of the century. The young increasingly have been left behind.

Potential causes are many. The Great Recession hit housing hard, but it particularly affected the young, who were more likely to have the largest balances on their loans and the least equity relative to their home values. If a house value fell 20 percent, a younger owner with 20 percent equity would lose 100 percent in housing net worth, whereas an older owner with the mortgage paid off would witness a drop of only 20 percent.

As for the stock market, it has provided very low returns over recent years, but those who hung on through the Great Recession had most of their net worth restored to pre-recession values. Bondholders usually came out ahead by the time the recession ended as interest rates fell and underlying bonds often increased in value. Also making out well were those with annuities from defined benefit pension plans and Social Security, whose values increase when interest rates fall (though the data noted above exclude those gains in asset values). Older generations hold a much higher percentage of their portfolios in assets that have recovered or appreciated since the Great Recession.

As I mentioned earlier, however, the tendency for lesser wealth accumulation among the younger generations has been occurring for some time, so the special hit they took in the Great Recession leaves out much of the story. Here we must search for other answers to the question of why the young have been falling behind. Likely candidates for their relatively worse status, many of which are correlated, include
  • a lower rate of employment when in the workforce;
  • delayed entry into the workforce and into periods of accumulating saving;
  • reduced relative pay, partly due to their first-time-ever lack of any higher educational achievement relative to past generations;
  • their delayed family formation, usually a harbinger and motivator of thrift and homebuilding;
  • lower relative minimum wages; and
  • higher shares of compensation taken out to pay for Social Security and health care, with less left over to save.
When it comes to conventional wisdom and media attention to distributional issues, there's a tendency simply to attribute any particular disparity, such as the young falling behind in wealth holdings, to the growth in wealth inequality in society. But the two need not be correlated. Disparities can grow within both younger and older generations, without the young necessarily falling behind as a group.

Whatever the causes, we should also remember that public policy now places increased burdens on the young, whether in ever-higher interest payments on federal debts they will be left or the political exemption of older generations from paying for their underfunded retirement and health benefits. At the same time, state and local governments have given education lower priority in their budgets; pension plans for government workers now grant reduced and sometimes zero net benefits to new, younger hires; and homeownership subsidies post-recession increasingly favor the haves over the more risky have-nots.

Maybe, more than just maybe, it's time to think about investing in the young.

Read this commentary in PDF format.

The Government We Deserve is a periodic column on public policy by Eugene Steuerle, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Urban Institute and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury.

Note to Editors: Publication of this column is encouraged and permission is hereby granted, provided that the author is properly cited. For information or comments, e-mail paaffairs@urban.org. The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its sponsors.



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