ST. LOUIS — It took about two days this past month for a panel of experts to distill down the problems that young, financially strapped Americans need only a minute to express: Things are rough, and they are not going to get better soon.
But which generation faces the roughest climb? It may come as a surprise but some observers believe it’s not the youngest among us. It’s their parents.
A group of economists converged in St. Louis this past month for a discussion on the critical issues facing the younger generations.
“The Balance Sheets of Younger Americans: Is the American Dream at Risk?” examined issues and potential policy directions to meet the challenges. The two-day symposium was staged by the Center for Household Financial Stability and the research department at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, along with the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis.
James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed, said the Fed’s Center for Household Financial Stability is researching family balance sheets with the aim of strengthening both families and the economy.
“Because of the financial crisis and the Great Recession, our framework and analysis must not only consider what families save and own but what they owe,” he said at the event.
Research is showing that young families lost the most wealth from the recession and have by far been the slowest to recover it, he said. Since 1989, middle-age Americans have increased their wealth on average by about two-thirds and older Americans have doubled theirs. But younger ones have lost about 10 percent of theirs.
At present, younger Americans may not surpass the wealth of their parents and grandparents, which would be “a historical first,” Bullard said.
Findings from the symposium will be going to Washington where a national symposium is planned in October, he said.
Among the big issues are unemployment, underemployment, work-family balance and student debt.
Neil Howe, who has spent years studying generations and social change, was keynote speaker. He is founding partner and president of LifeCourse Associates, a Virginia-based consulting firm.
He said there is no way to crunch the numbers without actually understanding the interconnectedness of the last few generations.
From 1983 to 2010, real median net worth nearly tripled for Americans over the age of 75 and doubled for Americans age 65 to 74, but it fell by 30 percent for Americans age 35 to 44.
“For Gen X’ers, you might say, ‘Reality bites,’” Howe told his audience, referring to the category of Americans best described as those born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s.
He said he is often asked for an opinion on which generation is in the greatest danger.
“I think the answer is, ‘not Millennials,’” Howe said, referring to those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. “Few Millennials were old enough to lose much wealth in the recent crash. Although they are encountering a very rough start, they have decades to make up for lost earnings and lost savings. Barring a true catastrophic future, they should be OK.”
Howe is more worried about Generation X.
“X’ers were hit harder and at a more vulnerable stage in their lives, and a large share of them were not doing all that well to begin with. Many have become detached from the labor force. Most are used to getting by on their own without recourse to public services and safety nets. And a lot of them don’t have a lot of time left to repair their balance sheets before disability hits or retirement,” he said.
“Policies dedicated to Americans age roughly 35 to 55 should be a real national priority. We need to help millions of them to save more, get them reattached to the labor force and even get them re-engaged in the political system. The success of Generation X’ers will in turn boost the confidence of Millennials and that will energize the economy and the outlook of all Americans,” he said.
He said mortgage relief is one of the biggest answers to what ails that generation.
“Millennials aren’t in it yet. There’s a huge increase in renting over owning. If they do get mortgages, it’s often their moms and dads co-signing and there’s a whole different set of problems there. But for Gen X it is really is about mortgage burden. Will they ever work their work out from under it.”
Retraining for work is another big key.
“A lot of these X’ers are in midcareer and have to retool,” he said. “They can’t just coast on what they have. We’ve also seen in recent years a huge increase in student lending to older age brackets.”
But X’ers are resilient and willing to try new things, which will help them in the end, Howe said. Millennials, on the other hand, haven’t reached a confidence level to be so flexible. One case in point: Twenty-two percent of 25 to 34 years olds live with their parents — double the number from 1980.
According to a recent analysis from the Center for Household Financial Stability, housing constituted the largest share of the average young family’s portfolio before the crash, and the large decline in house prices had a bigger effect on young families than on older families, who were more likely to have broader asset diversification.
The homeownership rate among younger households has plunged in recent years, reflecting both the loss of many homes through foreclosure or other distressed sales, plus delayed entry into homeownership among newly formed households.
The house-price gains that have helped mainly older families to rebuild homeowners’ equity have been overshadowed among younger families by their ongoing retreat from homeownership as they struggle with excessive mortgage debt.
Recent U.S. Census data shows that younger and middle-age families (between 40 and 61 years old) are leading the retreat from homeownership.
The homeownership rate among young families decreased from 50.1 percent in 2005 to 42.2 percent in 2013. Middle-age families’ homeownership rate declined, though not as sharply, from 76.9 percent in 2005 to 72.1 percent in 2013. Older families (age 62 or older) actually increased their homeownership rate after 2005 by almost a full percentage point.
The decline in homeownership rates for the young and middle-age groups is ongoing, and it appears unlikely that the overall homeownership rate will return to its peak level any time soon, if ever, the analysis concluded.