Welcome to Act II of Generation Hexed. In yesterday’s curtain-raiser (read that and more here), the audience heard a tale of how about 45 million Americans in their 30s and early 40s are sliding down the opportunity ladder.
It observed how, in 2004, thirtysomething men were earning 12 percent less than their fathers were, in inflation-adjusted dollars, three decades earlier.
Today’s scene — “Debt, Stagnant Wages, and You: Perfect Together” — begins with a dramatic reading from an April 2003 report by the United States General Accounting Office.
“The younger generations, especially Generation X, have higher levels of debt than current retirees did at similar ages,” said the GAO analysis of wealth and future income.
“The median level of debt for the Baby Boom is 38 percent greater than that for the Pre-Baby Boom generation.” (Boomers: worse than the generation that preceded them.)
“Generation X’s median level of debt is 146 percent greater than that of the Pre-Baby Boom generation and 78 percent greater than that of the Baby Boom.” (Xers: in deeper than the Titanic.)
But why, Sherlock? Well, Watson, let’s look to the real estate listings for a clue.
“The increase in debt levels between the Baby Boom and Generation X,” the GAO writes, “was due largely to increases in housing debt.”
Perhaps you are to blame, Xer. Perhaps you lavished yourself recklessly with more house than you deserved and not enough cash on the front end. Surely, there are self-destructive gluttons among you. This is, after all, Land of the Credit Card.
But that’s not very like you. Market researchers say you are a practical lot compared with the 80 million boomers ahead of you who grew up during the wave of sustained economic growth after World War II.
You were latchkey children and guinea pigs of mass-produced divorce. You were coddled by The Fonz, not June Cleaver. You’re scrappy and skeptical and tend not to overreach.
So, then, let’s look at the housing market, shall we? You may recall that in the late 1990s, as Xers were barely out of their twenties and prowling for hearth and home, dot-com went “pop” and housing went all “snap, crackle” on us.
For the entire century before that, home prices had grown 1 percent a year, on average. But from 1997 to 2006, prices rose 7 percent on average each year, according to a recent Inquirer article.
Real median income growth, meanwhile, flattened from 2000 to 2005, the Pew Charitable Trusts found. Imagine the impact on midcareer Xers just starting to get a grip on life. Say ouch with me.
“It’s very hard for Gen Xers, for young people in that period, to purchase housing,” Barbara D. Bovbjerg, who heads education, workforce, and income-security issues at GAO, told me this week.
Many boomers, by virtue of their age, had bought houses before the bubble. But now even many of them are swimming in debt, too, Bovbjerg said, after splurging with the riches of home equity.
“The housing prices drive both, the savings and the debt, for the boomers and Gen X,” she said.
College debt? We’re not even tackling that plague on Gen X and the 88 million boomer spawn behind Gen X.
Tomorrow we talk retirement. They say such an Eden exists. But Xer, buckle up.
Mike Armstrong is away. Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org