Why millennials aren’t saving

DrowningSavings rates for adults under 35 plunged from 5 percent in 2009 to a negative 2 percent, according to Moody’s Analytics, and the consequences are potentially huge. Here’s how a Wall Street Journal writer put it:

“A lack of savings increases the vulnerability of young workers in the postrecession economy, leaving many without a financial cushion for unexpected expenses, raising the difficulty of job transitions and leaving them further away from goals like eventual homeownership—let alone retirement….Those who don’t save are unlikely to be wealthy in the future, meaning American angst over wealth inequality seems poised to persist if most millennials are unable to save or choose not to.”

Unfortunately, the two “real people” quoted in the story both have college educations and decent jobs. The first has credit card debt (a synonym for “frivolous spending”) and would rather spend on “her social life and travel” while the second finds investments “too complicated.” These two reinforce the narrative that the only reason people don’t save is because they don’t want to.

In reality, most people under 35 don’t have a college degree. They have a higher unemployment rate than their elders and much smaller incomes–the median for households headed by someone under 35 was $35,300 in 2013, down from $37,600 in 2010. As the WSJ article notes, wages for those 35 and under have fallen 9 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 1995.

(Millennials, by the way, also don’t have much credit card debt. In the 2010 survey, the latest for which age breakdowns are available, fewer than 40 percent of under-35 households carried credit card balances, and the median amount owed was $1,600.)

Saving on small incomes is, of course, possible–and essential if you ever hope to get ahead. But any discussion of savings among the young should acknowledge how much harder it is to do in an era of falling incomes. Today’s millennials have it tougher than Generation X did at their age, and way, way tougher than the Baby Boomers. It may comfort older, wealthier Americans to imagine the younger generation is just more frivolous. But that does a disservice to millennials, and to our understanding of the real causes of wealth inequality.

 

 

 

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