Then and Now.

            Seen through the optic of income and net worth in 2019, there are two Americas.[1] It isn’t a racial or gender or regional division, although those factors undoubtedly play a role under the surface.  Instead, it is an age or generational division.  One is older, comparatively successful, and rich.  One is much younger, less successful, and comparatively poor.  For those born before 1965, their American lives have been a success story.  For those born from 1965 on, their American lives have been, and continue to be, a story of struggle and frustration. 

            Those 75 or older (i.e. born before 1944) earned 62 percent more than did the equivalent age group in 1989 (i.e. born 1914 or before).[2]  Their median individual net worth was 76.7 percent greater than for the equivalent group in 1989.  Working careers ran from before 1964 to say 2009. 

Those 65 to 74 (i.e. born 1945-1954) earned 50.2 percent more than did the equivalent age-group in 1989 (i.e. born 1915-1924).  Their median individual net worth was 72.4 percent greater than for the equivalent group in 1989.  Working careers ran from 1965 to 2019. 

            Those 55 to 64 (i.e. born 1955-1964) earned 21.6 percent more than did the equivalent age group in 1989 (i.e. born 1925-1934).  Their median individual net worth was 9.2 percent greater than for the equivalent group in 1989.  Working careers ran from 1975 to, say, 2030. 

            In contrast, those 45-54 (i.e. born 1965-1974) earned only 2.1 percent more than did equivalent age group in 1989 (i.e. born 1935-1944).  Their median individual net worth was 13.5 percent less than for the equivalent group in 1989.  Working careers ran from 1985 to 2040. 

            Those 35-44 (i.e. born 1975-1984) earned only 0.9 percent more than did the equivalent group in 1989 (i.e. born 1945-1954).  Their median individual net worth was 19 percent less than for the equivalent group in 1989.  Working careers ran from 1995 to 2050. 

In 2019 those 34 and under (i.e. born in 1985 or later) earned17.7 percent more than did the equivalent age group in 1989 (i.e. those born 1955-1981).  Their median individual net worth was 13.5 percent less than for the equivalent group in 1989.  Working careers ran from 2005 to after 2070. 

            How can we explain this divided America?  “Successful” America went to work from before 1944 to 1984.  “Less successful” America went to work from 1985 onward.  

To overstate matters to some degree, from 1940 to the 1980, Americans lived in an “Age of Free Prosperity.”[3]  The Second World War revived an economy with immense latent power.  It took decades for a war-ravaged world to catch up.  From the 1970s on, global economic conditions became much more competitive, but Americans had a hard time adjusting.  Income growth stalled, even as 401ks boomed for those who could save. 

            The college debt “crisis” is a symptom of this issue, more than it is a cause.  Before 1980, people with (or without) degrees came out of school into a better employment environment than has been the case since 1980.  Still, the old will croak pretty soon and their kids will inherit.  This may be generational justice.  It isn’t a solution to the underlying problem. 


[1] David Leonhardt, “Why Cancel Student Debt Now?  Things Really Are Tougher,” NYT, 31 August 2022. 

[2] Sums adjusted for inflation.  Income and net worth are median for the group. 

[3] I’m borrowing from the term “Age of Free Security,” which is how historians of foreign relations describe the period before the First World War.  Nobody could reach us or threaten us, except may Britain, which didn’t want to. 

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