Why Millennials Can’t Catch Up In Today’s Economy

Remember the American Dream? The promise that each generation could climb higher than the last through hard work?

Millennials believed it. Their parents lived it—buying homes, raising families, retiring comfortably.

But today, that Dream is failing. Millennials have less access to the middle-class stability of prior generations. Their wages are stagnant, their debts are skyrocketing, costs keep rising, and they have little savings. This has weakened their finances, creating a massive “Millennial Wealth Gap.”

This gap doesn’t just hurt Millennials’ prospects. It crushes the American Dream itself. Without wealth to invest in their futures, Millennials risk becoming a “lost generation,” unable to match their ancestors’ success.

For a country that values upward mobility, the Millennial wealth gap shows that the rungs of the economic ladder are moving farther apart.

Born Into a Rigged Economy

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The roots of the wealth gap formed before Millennials came of age. Starting in the 1980s, economic gains focused on the wealthiest families. The top 1% now held 32.3% of America’s wealth in 2021 (and climbing), up from 30% in 1992.

Millennials entered adulthood just as this divide was accelerating. With so much wealth at the top, opportunity was scarce at the bottom. Poor Millennials had little chance to get ahead without family resources for education or connections.

The Great Recession dealt another blow. The housing crash and financial crisis wiped out $19 trillion in household wealth. While all groups were hurt, older households recovered faster as asset markets rebounded. By then, Millennials’ meager savings were drained, and their careers derailed by a dismal job market.

Weakened finances kept them from buying homes or investing as asset prices recovered. Older groups capitalized on the comeback by using existing assets. With nothing to leverage, Millennials missed out. The recession knocked them back right as they sought an economic foothold.

Education Debt Without Reward

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Millennials were told college was the path to prosperity. Instead, it burdened them with massive debts that consumed their paychecks. Since the 1980s, tuition has gone up 169% while wages stayed flat.

Despite taking on massive student loans, many graduates now struggle to find jobs that allow repayment, let alone savings. Discrimination, career limits, and stagnant wages have reduced education’s income benefits.

Millennials face a Catch-22: college costs much more but does less to grow their wealth. Debt delays significant purchases like homes, trapping borrowers.

Ever Less with Ever More

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By every measure, Millennials gain less wealth than prior generations at this age, although they are better educated. Median net worth for Americans under 35 has dropped over 40% since the 1990s. Half have zero retirement savings.

But debts have exploded. Young adults today have almost twice the total debt of 30 years ago. Student loans now top $1.5 trillion, triple the mortgage debt. Credit cards, auto loans and medical debts add to this burden.

These weights leave little income for assets. Homeownership among young adults has plunged as housing costs outpace pay. Homes remain the primary way to build middle-class wealth.

Millennials lack ways to build equity to start businesses, pursue more education, or handle emergencies without them.

Savings are dismal. Most Millennials have under $1,000 saved and live paycheck to paycheck. Emergency costs often spiral into missed payments, damaging credit and work prospects. Such instability leaves them highly exposed to any financial shocks.

The Deflated Dream

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As a result, Millennials delay traditional adult milestones. Nearly half live (45%) with parents or relatives, unable to afford independence. Millennial marriage and birth rates are at historic lows as they put off expensive commitments.

With meager retirement funds, Millennials must work deep into old age. But those in physical jobs may lack that option as their bodies wear down. Delayed retirement savings could force downward mobility later in life.

After expecting boundless potential, Millennials now face limits beyond their control. The futures they dreamed of move farther away as they live constrained by debts and chance layoffs. Hard work seems fruitless when the odds are stacked against you.

Cracks In the Foundation

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With money woes undermining milestones like homeownership, marriage, and children, the foundations of the community suffer. Financial struggles strain people and relationships.

Insecurity breeds anxiety and discontent. Families under stress cannot develop their children’s abilities, perpetuating wasted potential.

Over 40% of Millennials are non-white, so racial and economic gaps will hamstring much of the next generation. With inequality growing both between generations and classes, we approach a caste system where opportunity depends almost wholly on birth circumstances.

The belief in meritocracy rings false when grit alone cannot overcome systemic barriers.

Restoring the Promise

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The Millennial wealth void need not be permanent. We can build fairer systems where effort and talent can bloom into prosperity with thoughtful changes.

Solutions should help Millennials regain financial security while creating equal opportunities for those to come. The agenda should include:

  • Easing debts via student loan relief and ethical consumer finance laws
  • Promoting savings through incentives and workplace retirement plans
  • Investing in lifelong assets like Children’s Savings Accounts
  • Expanding assistance like paid leave, affordable housing and healthcare
  • Opening new paths to wealth beyond home ownership
  • Fostering equitable markets and wages to grow minority wealth
  • Making higher education accessible for all students

The American Dream need not collapse. But restoring it requires recognizing how current conditions endanger younger, poorer, and more diverse Americans. Only by building an economy focused on shared prosperity alongside growth can we revive the promise of opportunity for all.

The crisis of economic mobility shown by the Millennial wealth gap demands urgent action. We can re-stitch the unravelling link between effort and financial security with work.

We can shape a society that values people over efficiency and cares for the vulnerable while empowering strivers. Reviving the Dream requires unlocking every person’s potential to live fulfilling, purposeful lives. The task is great, but the reward makes it worth it.

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Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.