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Just how badly are millennials being screwed out of wealth? Let’s take a look at the data.
The Federal Reserve regularly publishes data on the generational gaps in wealth. The boomers have plenty of it, and millennials don’t. That’s no surprise — the boomers are older. But what recent data also clearly shows is that when the boomers were millennials’ age, they had significantly more than millennials do today.
Back in 1989, when boomers were between 25 and 43, they already owned 20.9% of the country’s wealth, according to data from the Federal Reserve updated earlier this month. In 2019, millennials are between 23 and 38, and they currently own a whopping 3.2% of wealth. That means boomers had more than six times as much wealth in 1989 as millennials do now.
“I definitely think millennials have a bunch to be uniquely annoyed about,” said Josh Bivens, research director at the Economic Policy Institute. “Lots of them graduated into a horrible labor market, and they’ve probably been very stunted in their ability to get on the treadmill of earning enough to actually save anything.”
Looking at wealth over time, any given generation would start out with nothing. (Children don’t own stuff.) As time passes, they’d accumulate wealth, and, eventually, people die and tend to pass their wealth on as inheritance.
But the olds’ wealth isn’t trickling down — in 2019, the generations older than the boomers still controlled nearly a quarter of U.S. wealth.
And the inequality isn’t going unnoticed to millennials and the even younger Gen Z. There’s a fair bit of resentment in the air right now — take “ok boomer” as evidence, the dismissive retort the youngs levy against the olds, and the the olds take it personally.
Political candidates know that to effectively reach a millennial audience, they need to be speaking their language. That means tackling inequality, relieving student debt, and promising affordable healthcare — which all of the major Democratic presidential candidates have put forward plans to do.
“I definitely think millennials have a bunch to be uniquely annoyed about.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, who has stridently advocated aggressively taxing the wealthiest 1%, has more support among millennials than any other candidate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, who likes to point out that he’s “the youngest guy on the stage” at debates, both have big plans to relieve student debt.
Some candidates are even directly pandering to young voters, with videos like Sen. Kamala Harris’ “mood mix.”
No matter how embarrassing their youth outreach, the Democratic party has the millennial vote by a wide margin: The generaton voted Democrat by 35 points in 2018.
Still, it’s worth noting that it’s less that boomers, as a generation, had significantly more wealth than millennials do: It’s more that a tiny fraction of the boomers have always been wealthy and have only gotten richer.
Back in 1989, the bottom half of the country, regardless of age, only had about 4% of the country’s wealth. Since then, the top 1% has gotten richer, the top 10% has held onto its share of wealth, and everyone else got poorer. Now, boomers have 18 times as much wealth as millennials do, according to Fed data.
“The boomer generation had a lot more wealth at this point in their life cycle,” Bivens said. “But it wasn’t the typical boomer — it was that small slice of very, very rich ones, and that’s where we should aim most of our side-eye.”
All other things being equal, generations are defined somewhat arbitrarily, and not all of them are of equal size. Boomers were born during a 19-year period, between 1946 and 1964; millennials were born in a 16-year span, between 1981 and 1996. So it wouldn’t be unusual for millennials to have somewhat less wealth than the boomers.
But that boomers had so much more wealth when they were young than millennials have now means there are broader economic factors at play.
The generational wealth gap has been trending toward young people having less for the last 30 years, the Fed’s data shows. But even Gen X, that little generation between millennials and boomers that will never be president and loved Nirvana cassette tapes, was better off. In 2001, when they were between 22 and 36, Gen Xers had 5.7% of the country’s wealth, nearly twice millennials’ share in 2019, even though Gen X is markedly smaller than the millennial generation.
Young people know they’ve been screwed, and, increasingly, they’re not holding back on yelling at the olds about it. Undeterred that the olds don’t like having the phrase “ok boomer” leveled at them, they’re using it slander those politicians who aren’t taking their concerns seriously.
Cover image: Photo by Dong Wenjie via Getty Images