Millennials are Broke

The Why and the How

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My millennial peers and I have been labeled a myriad of pejoratives, including “lazy,” “entitled,” and “narcissistic.” But a word that many tend to leave off this list is “broke.”

Yes, we are a poorer generation, at least, concerning past generations. According to the Pew Research Center, the median net worth of households headed by Millennials in 2016 was $12,500, which is considerably less than both the Boomers and Gen X. In 1983, Boomers’ median net worth of households was $20,700, and for Gen X at the same age it was $15,100. Therefore, millennials are approximately only 60% as wealthy as Boomers and 83% as rich as Gen X. 

The wealth disparity cannot be attributed to a singular event. Instead, a perfect storm of economic conditions and educational costs have crippled the millennial coffer.

Student Debt

Millennials are the most educated generation. And we've paid heavily for it, too. As of 2019, the average student loan debt in the U.S. is over $30,000 per student. Moreover, according to a 2019 study conducted by AARP, annual costs for four-year higher education institutions, after adjusting for inflation, are more than two-and-a-half times what they were when the oldest baby boomers entered college in 1964.


“Westchester is the only county where you can make six figures and still have to constantly worry about money.”


Let's look at actual numbers. In 1965, the cost of one year of college at a public institution was a steal as $7,256. In 2016 the price of one year of college at a public institution was $19,189, a 164% increase from the boomers' college years. 

When I was in high school, administrators spoke to us about college plenty, sure. Where would we go? How was the culture? Did you get a good feeling? Do they have your major? We were constantly barraged. But there were minimal, if any, conversations regarding finances. 

As a seventeen-year-old senior who didn't pay her own cell phone bill and made $12 an hour as a library page, talking about dollars in the thousands and hundreds of thousands was the equivalent of speaking a foreign language. 

When asked how student debt has impacted her life, Katherine McAteer, 30, of White Plains, said, “I'm just now moving out of my parent's at 30 years old, and I was fully employed one month after college graduation.”

Recently graduated millennials not only have to worry about securing a job but the looming threat of their first student loan bill. 

“My debt is so high, it honestly feels like there's no point in paying it back,” said 30-year-old New York resident Reweina Tessema, who grew up in Westchester. 

The Great Recession

In 2008, the Great Recession hit America, and 22 million people lost their jobs, according to the Economy Policy Institute. 2008 was also the first year that millennials started to graduate from college. So now, millennials, straddled with debt and no job to provide an income, were hit at a critical time when past generations would accumulate wealth, save and be on much better standings financially. 

According to Census Bureau economist Kevin Rinz, millennial employment has since recovered from the Great Recession, but millennial earnings have not. In fact, according to his 2019 working paper, Rinz found that the average millennial between 2005 and 2017 lost 13% of their earnings. 

The pandemic hasn't helped, either. 9.6 million jobs were lost during the downturn of the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center, with many millennials who had finally ascended into higher-paying positions losing their jobs. 

Lasting Impact

The student debt and devastation of earnings have stunted millennial wealth, and in turn, millennial lives. 

For many millennials, homeownership is a far-away dream. Out of my friends who live in Westchester, no one owns a single-family home. A few own co-operatives, but none have yet to purchase a single-family home. It's no secret why. We cannot afford it. 

In Westchester County, the median sales price of a single-family home in 2020 was $710,000, according to the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors (HGAR). So just the cost of a down payment on an over $700k home is over $140,000, which in many cases, is more than the cost of the homes our parents bought. In addition, a report by private debt firm Student Loan Hero found that millennials will be paying 39% more for houses than Baby Boomers who purchased homes in the 1980s. This thought does make me want to vomit, yes. 

“Westchester is the only county where you can make six figures and still have to constantly worry about money,” lamented a 29-year-old White Plains resident who asked to remain anonymous.

Millennials also are starting families much later or not at all due to expenses. According to a 2020 poll from technology company Morning Consult, nearly 3 in 5 childless millennials don't have children because of the cost to raise them. 

While buying a home may seem a far-away dream, funding retirement seems like an even more daunting prospect. According to a survey from the National Association of Financial Planners, over a third of millennials believe they will never stop working, and 35% do not anticipate having enough money in their retirement accounts to retire comfortably. 

Fortunately, millennials are more focused on retirement than past generations. A 2020 Wells Fargo report found that millennials' average age to start saving for retirement was 25, while boomers began at 36. 

A significant difference between retirements of the past and millennial retirements is that millennials are not offered the robust packages that past generations were. Pensions are mostly unheard of for me and my fellow millennials. According to the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, the number of pension plans that offered defined benefits, meaning pension payouts that were guaranteed, has declined 73% from 1986 to 2016. So, while past generations had a guaranteed retirement fund, millennials must fund a majority, if not all, of their retirement savings, in addition to paying off student debt and saving for everyday expenses.

So go ahead, and lament that millennials are entitled, lazy, and a slew of other negative adjectives. Just know that sticks and stones can never hurt us, but damn, that student debt sure has. 


Erin Maher is a writer and Westchester native. She has written on a myriad of topics, including life as a millennial and tennis. When not writing, Erin can be found on the tennis and pickleball courts or lovingly scrolling through pictures of dogs on Instagram. For more of her musings, visit erinmaherwrites.com, and follow her on Instagram @erinmaherwrites and Twitter @erinmaherwrites.


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