by Brandon Reiter
As I grind through my job, I often wonder how I could possibly make more money than my parents. After all, my parents made more money than their parents, who made more money than their parents.
Being the typical millennial I am, as I scroll through social media, I see plenty of memes and jokes about “boomers” telling their millennial children, that ‘at their age, they were able to afford a house and feed an entire family, all while saving for retirement.’ There is indeed actual data outside of memes that support this notion. So, it’s not just me, but millennials, on average, are less wealthy than their parents at the same stage in life, despite making more money and being more educated. Why?
There are a multitude of factors we can point to, and it’s not because millennials are dumb or lazy (okay some us are but not more so than other generations). Socioeconomic factors like cost of living, economic growth, and overall views on saving money are the real culprits for millennials finding themselves at a financial disadvantage compared to their parents.
Let’s start by taking a look at the cost of living. It costs way more to live as an adult now, that it did 30-50 years ago. Just think about all of the little things you need* to spend on that your parents and grandparents did not. Internet, cable, Wi-Fi, email, and most other tech-related “utilities”, that are so common now, did not exist as little as 25 years ago. In addition, many items that did exist have drastically increased in price, outpacing wages. Increases in college tuition, housing, healthcare, and child care have out paced wages. Simply put, it costs way more to live in this current society and wages have not compensated to the same extent.
Another huge factor is the differences in generation population and corresponding economic growth. Boomers are typically the children of the traditionalist/silent generation, those people born between 1928-1945. The traditionalist generation was one that grew up on the heels of the Great Depression and WWII, causing their parents to have less children, yielding a smaller demographic compared to other generations. Boomers get their name because their parents had far more children due to changing mindsets about war and family than their grandparents, thus leading to the “Baby Boom” in the 50s and 60s. Naturally, with more boomers entering a growing workforce, job opportunities were plentiful as they came of age because there were way more of them in a growing economy fill than there were incumbents to block them from filling such roles.
While boomers had more children, on average, than Millennials do now, they still did not have as many as their own parents. This would create less opportunities for millennials in the workforce to replace the boomer incumbents in higher paying jobs, not just because there were less of them to replace their predecessors, but also because the economy came to screeching halt in both 2008 and 2020.
Millennials came of age during The Great Recession of 2008, thus the economy ceased to create the same level of opportunities to out earn their parents. Prior to the financial collapse of 2008, many people were able to buy a house and reasonably expect that property to appreciate significantly over the course of their ownership. Once the housing market collapsed, this was no longer true for millennials, leading to far less of them becoming home owners than their parents were at the same age.
On top of these major factors, millennials have a much different mindset than their parents and grandparents when it comes to saving money. Boomers and their parents were taught to earn and save for retirement, climb corporate ladders, own a home and have children. Millennials on the other hand, are much more influenced by social media to spend, have more of a work life balance, travel, and delay having children. There fore millennials spend way more of their paychecks than their parents did at their age, leading to less investments in their retirement.
The point of all this is not to complain or blame the generations before us, but to understand the financial position we’re in so we can all prepare for our future. It is not impossible to get a mortgage and buy a house as a millennial, our parents faced very high interest rates as well. You can still travel and delay having children thanks to advances in medicine and fertility treatment. There are ways to budget for this and still save, so it is important to think about your retirement and how much you are actually spending, and focus on how you can adjust your budget to accomplish your desired lifestyle to a reasonable degree while also putting some money away for retirement.
While our parents were taught and conditioned to work and save, work and save, work and save, it is OKAY that our generation prefers to actually try and enjoy life to some degree while also trying to make a living wage. Just as every generation before us had jobs that did not exist when they were children, so do millennials and we will keep finding jobs tomorrow that do not exist today. Take me for example.
(Full disclosure: I am a white male raised by an upper-middle class family, so I do recognize that the odds are stacked in my favor, but I think my experience is still valuable.)
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance, and went on to work traditional 9-5 jobs for big companies in my first few years out of college. During the pandemic, and more so the shift to a more virtual workforce, I found that I had a greater opportunity to offer my skills and services by freelancing. This allows me to serve multiple clients, and customize my workload to some degree. I am not relying on a single employer to fund my life, and I can adjust my work and amount of clients to fit my desired work/life balance. I find that an increasing amount of my peers are choosing a similar route, especially those who work in marketing, advertising, PR, and graphic design industries.
So if you are a millennial (or older Gen Zer) concerned with your future retirement and earning potential, the best thing you can do is strategically consider how you can leverage you’re knowledge, education and skills, in way that may be a tad less “traditional”, but one that can allow you to work in an environment that is more suited for your lifestyle and spending habits.