The Great Recession Has Created a New ‘Lost Generation’

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American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein usually gets credit for identifying the post-World War I generation of 20- and young 30-somethings as the “Lost Generation.” Stein is referring to a generation of Americans born between the mid-1880s and 1900 who were both disoriented and dislocated by the Great War and its aftermath.

In an interesting new paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, researchers identify a new “lost generation” only this time the term refers to wealth lost following the Great Recession and how each generation has recovered from it so far.

For Americans born in the 1980s — the tail end of Gen X and the first years of the millennial generation — the recovery has been worse. Much worse in fact.

The researchers used data collected by the Federal Reserve every three years in its Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) between 1989 and 2016. They compared the mean inflation-adjusted wealth of people based on the decade of their birth (decadal cohorts) to a predicted benchmark level of wealth at various ages based on the SCF data.

Here’s a brief summary of their three main findings.

There is a pronounced cycle of wealth that begins at around zero in a person’s early 20s and peaks at around $228,000 by age 72. The range, of course, is very large but a typical household generally sees “rapid initial growth in percentage terms followed by steady deceleration and eventual decline — albeit slight — throughout the rest of the life cycle.” The shape of the cycle is influenced by economic and financial developments over time.

All birth cohorts lost wealth in the Great Recession, but only typical families headed by someone born in 1960 or later failed to get back on track by 2016. The recession reduced median wealth “substantially” among all six decadal cohorts and the youngest (born in 1960 or later) remained short of their age-specific benchmarks in 2016.

The 1980s cohort “is at greatest risk of becoming a ‘lost generation’ for wealth accumulation.” In 2016, a median family headed by someone born in the 1980s remained 34% below the predicted level of wealth accumulation based on previous generations’ experience at the same age. The researchers note:

Alone among the six decadal cohorts we studied, the typical 1980s family lost ground between 2010 and 2016, falling even further behind the typical wealth life cycle. This represents a missed opportunity because asset appreciation is unlikely to be as rapid in the near future as it was during the recent period.

The researchers also note that there is plenty of time for this cohort to catch up and that it’s the most-educated cohort ever.

The research indicates that low incomes did not contribute to low wealth among families headed by someone born after 1960. Lack of saving also played no role. The 1980s cohort saved at higher rates than the 1970s cohort at the same age.

Only 19% of the 1980s group were homeowners in 2007, the start of the housing crash and the Great Recession. As of 2016, only 45% of this cohort are homeowners compared to a predicted number of about 50%. The researchers’ comment:

The predominant type of debt they owe is non-mortgage debt, including student loans, auto loans and credit card debt. Because none of these types of debt finance assets that have appreciated rapidly during the last few years—such as stocks and real estate—they have received no leveraged wealth boost like that enjoyed by older cohorts.

With the long-running stock market bull run now apparently drawing to a close and real-estate prices pushing ever higher, the 1980s group faces a “formidable challenge” in catching up to prior generations’ benchmark levels.

This is the second of three reports the St. Louis Fed is planning this year on “The Demographics of Wealth.” The first examined the financial returns across the generations from going to college. This second report is titled “A Lost Generation? Long-Lasting Wealth Impacts of the Great Recession on Young Families.”