The children born into Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” era could be on track to become the last recession’s “lost generation,” new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says.
Americans who entered the world in the 1980s “are at substantial risk of accumulating less wealth over their life spans than the members of previous generations,” the report’s authors say. “Not only is their wealth shortfall in 2016 very large in percentage terms, but the typical 1980s family actually lost ground in relative terms between 2010 and 2016, a period of rapidly rising asset values that buoyed the wealth of all older cohorts.”
The St. Louis Fed research finds that as of 2016, those born in the 1980s had wealth levels 34% below where they would be absent the financial crisis and its aftermath. In comparison, people born in the 1970s had wealth levels that were 18% under where they should have been, while folks from the 1960s were down 11%.
In contrast, older folks navigated the financial crisis pretty well. The report says the typical family headed by someone born between 1930 and 1959 was actually above where it would have been if the crisis hadn’t happened.
The financial crisis began in 2007 with a crash in what had been a rip-roaring housing market. That helped set in motion the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression, with the economy in recession between 2007 and 2009 and an unemployment rate that hit nearly 10% by the end of 2009.
The jobless rate now stands at a very low 3.9% and is expected to go lower. Financial markets have recovered, the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates, and the ongoing expansion that started after the crisis stands a chance of becoming the longest on record.
The travails of the the 1980s cohort comes down to bad timing. Most people start out with little wealth, build it through their working life, achieve a peak around retirement age, and then burn that wealth off as they continue to age.
The late 2000s recession threw up an obstacle in that dynamic for younger workers. People of the 1980s generation started their working lives in a time of troubled investment markets, high unemployment and persistently weak wage gains.
These households also were saddled with debt the St. Louis Fed said wasn’t “productive.” Instead of holding mortgages, which ideally lead to full homeownership, these households were saddled with student, auto and credit-card debt. While an investment in education is generally seen as wise, the same can’t be said of the other two types of credit.
The report did sound an optimistic note that all isn’t lost for the 1980s generation. The authors said that time and high education levels may mean “the income and wealth trajectories of this generation will be steeper than those of earlier generations, allowing many families to achieve their wealth goals in the end.”