Benefitting from the bustling economy of the post-war era, Baby Boomers carved out a path of unparalleled prosperity, culminating in a collective wealth of tens of trillions of dollars.
As younger generations grapple with economic challenges starkly different from those of their predecessors, this prosperity sets the stage for one of history’s most significant wealth transfers.
However, a vast and increasing wealth gap raises critical questions about the disparate economic realities between the generations and this monumental shift’s impacts.
A Widening Wealth Gap
The impending transfer of wealth represents a seismic change in economic power and comes with complex ramifications. While a new study by the University of Cambridge suggests that not all Millennials are uniformly disadvantaged compared to Baby Boomers, most grapple with this widening wealth gap.
There has been a notable correction in rewards for different career and family patterns across generations. Millennials, on typically middle-class trajectories, have outpaced Baby Boomers in wealth accumulation. However, this trend has only widened the gap in wealth inequality, enriching the wealthiest Millennials while leaving the poor further behind.
Homeownership and asset accumulation were once achievable goals for individuals in traditional working-class professions, such as truck driving or hairdressing. Today’s younger generation, however, faces more significant challenges in reaching these milestones.
By age 35, only 7.3% of Millennials had advanced into high-profile careers such as law and medicine, a path 17% of Baby Boomers took. Millennials are now more often in professions like social work and teaching or service sector roles, including retail and caregiving. Yet, in another concerning trend, economic gains for stable, middle, and upper-class lifestyles have risen, while earnings for less secure, working-class jobs have remained static or declined. Consequently, many are financially worse off at 35 compared to Baby Boomers in similar life stages.
The percentage of Millennials with a negative net worth at 35 is 60% higher than that of Baby Boomers at the same age. In contrast, the rate of low-skilled service workers among Baby Boomers who own their own homes at 35 is 50% higher than that of Millennials.
These points underscore the growing wealth gap between generations, highlighting how economic shifts have made it harder for Millennials to achieve financial stability and accumulate assets compared to their predecessors.
The $100 Trillion Question
According to Federal Reserve data, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, comprising only 26% of the U.S. population, hold a staggering $100 trillion in household wealth. This figure, accounting for 63.5% of all household wealth in the nation, starkly contrasts with the financial realities of younger generations.
While it is unsurprising that older people would accumulate more wealth throughout their lives, Census data highlights the generational disparity. It reveals that Baby Boomers are nearly nine times better off, with a median wealth of $240,900 compared to just $27,420 for Millennials.
In the coming years, trillions of dollars are set to be transferred, including cash, real estate, and stocks. The complexity of this generational shift underscores the need for a deeper understanding of its long-term implications. The Cambridge researchers suggest that these disparities have contributed to social tensions, and the rise of populist movements reflects growing discontent among people who feel left behind or disadvantaged by existing economic systems.
A More Equitable Future?
Addressing the deepening wealth gap calls for comprehensive policy solutions and economic reforms. Government interventions can play a crucial role here. Progressive changes in taxation, targeted investment in education, and robust support for economic mobility are vital steps towards diminishing this disparity. These measures aim to redistribute wealth more evenly and empower individuals across generations with the tools and opportunities needed for financial success.
The Biden Administration has made several advances to deliver resources and benefits equitably through crucial pieces of legislation. The American Rescue Plan, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs, Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors, and Inflation Reduction Acts represent significant steps towards addressing systemic inequities.
The immense wealth of Baby Boomers also opens avenues for philanthropy and charitable giving to make significant societal impacts. High-net-worth individuals have the potential to channel their resources into social causes and initiatives aimed at reducing inequality. This approach extends beyond simply transferring assets, aiming to tackle the underlying systemic factors that continue to widen the wealth gap.
Shifts in job markets, technological advancements, and global economic trends will shape the financial futures of different generations. Understanding these dynamics is critical to preparing for how inequities might evolve by creating environments where future generations can thrive economically.
Fostering intergenerational solidarity and cooperation is also essential. Again, bridging the gap in wealth disparities is not just a matter of policy or asset distribution. Building understanding and collaboration between generations is critical. By working together, different cohorts can develop more effective strategies for wealth distribution, ensuring economic stability and a more equitable future.
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Mark Garro is an Aussie former CPA and corporate finance manager turned research writer. After more than two decades simplifying complex analyses for leading companies, including Goldman Sachs, Marks & Spencer, and Tabcorp, he packed up and moved to the Italian Riviera. Now he covers all things related to finance and equity research for a diverse range of publishers and syndicators around the world.