Who's Had the Worst Recession: Boomers, Millennials, or Gen-Xers?

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Gen-Y has the worst unemployment. Near-retirees have the least time to recover their savings. And Gen-Xers? They're caught between debt that won't disappear and an economy that won't move.

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The Millennial generation got hit hardest by the Great Recession. You might have heard this, over and over, especially if you read The Atlantic or happen to have asked somebody from the Millennial generation. Downturns like this one change the course of a lifetime for college graduates, as low starting salaries snowball into a lifetime of depressed wages, slim pensions, and even shorter lifespans.

Hogwash! a Boomer might retort. Even if they have narrower prospects, Millennials have their whole lives to make back lost wages. When the stock market tumbled and housing prices collapsed, couples near retirement lost their nest eggs at the very moment that they were looking to step out of the workforce. Surely, they suffered the most from the timing of this recession.

Oh, come on! a Gen-Xer might respond, we got the worst of both worlds. The 46 million Americans between the age of 33 and 46 reached the prime of their working years only to find salaries depressed by a bad economy and promotions suppressed by lingering Boomers.

This is a debate without a winner, and we're not going to name one. Instead, we're want to look across three categories -- employment, income, and overall wealth outlook -- and argue on behalf of each generation that their cohort got it worst.

EMPLOYMENT

GenY: It's a simple case: Unemployment is worst for the youngest. Overall joblessness is between two and three times higher for 20-somethings than older workers, and the greatest percentage increase in unemployment between December 2007 and September 2010 happens to be 20-24-year olds ... with a college education!

GenX:  Young people can move around with ease. But when you're married with children and a house, it's harder to pick up and follow the job openings. Worse for GenXers, the fastest-growing jobs are in positions that a middle-class mother or father is disinclined to accept. Six in ten jobs lost during the downturn were in middle-wage occupations, according to the National Employment Law Project, and nearly 75 percent of the jobs added since were lower-wage -- so-called McJobs. Gen-Yers can afford $10 an hour, for a while anyway.

Boomers: For those out of work, it's bad to be a Boomer. Older workers suffered the largest overall increase in long-term unemployment, and they face the longest spells of joblessness. In 2009, younger workers were about as likely as prime-age workers to find work, but unemployed older workers were the least likely of all to find jobs, with only about 15 percent of jobseekers finding jobs each month in 2009.

INCOME

GenY: For Millennials, it's not just the money they're not making today. It's all the money they won't make tomorrow. For every one-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, new graduates' starting income falls by 7 percent, according to Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale. And 17 years later, those who had entered the workforce in the worst of a recession still earn 10 percent less than those who graduated in lusher times. When you add it all up, Don Peck writes, "it's as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation."

GenX: A recent study by the Center for Work-Life Policy (charticled nicely by Bloomberg Businessweek) revealed Gen-Xers to be the chief victims of the Great Recession. They're working harder -- a two-parent family worked 26 percent more hours in 2010 than in 1975 -- and making less. Thirty-something men had an average income of $40,000 some 30 years ago; today, it's $35,000. Yet remarkably, hourly wages for this group have fallen even more for women in the last ten years. Finally, the ladder to the C-suite is crowded: Boomers have delayed their expected retirement by another five years since the recession struck.

Boomers: Since Boomers have the lowest unemployment rate and the highest total income, it's hard to make the case that 47-65-year-olds have the worst income crisis. Rather, their greatest challenge is preserving wealth at a time when asset values have been decimated. More on that in the next section.

THE FUTURE OUTLOOK

GenY: This overall wealth outlook category is all about debt-building versus asset-building. Gen-Yers don't have a lot of assets, which is fortunate at a time when housing values have fallen more than 25 percent in major cities. But we do have debt, particularly student loan debt, and this is a particularly nerve-wracking story. Total student loan debt infamously eclipsed credit card debt last year at $850 billion, and tuition costs are still rising even faster than health care costs. The hollowing out of the middle class means that paying back that debt -- and finding ways to pay for an education that keeps us ahead of productivity curve -- will be the challenge of a generation.

The kids behind us face these challenges, and more. If their parents can't afford tuition and extended health care coverage, that will mean more debt for today's grade-schoolers. In the near future, the poverty rate for children is projected to rise to a multi-decade high of 26 percent in 2014.

GenX: Compare debt and assets: The first is growing, the second is falling, and that's not the way you want it. Low pay today is coming on the heels of a big student debt increase. In 1977, when the youngest Gen-Xers were in 4th grade, a third of students borrowed for college. By the time this generation was finishing school, 65 percent borrowed to attend college. The average homeowner entered the recession with debt equal to 125 percent of income. Now with a fifth of homes underwater or close to it, millions of older Gen-Xers (and Boomers) are drowning in what they thought were their savings vehicles.

There is also the question of how this plays out for retirement. X-ers are in danger of losing out on their pensions, whether or not state and federal governments reform their calculations. "When somebody loses a job at age 60, their pensions are not as affected because they've racked up enough lifetime earnings," said Till Von Watcher, associate professor economics at Columbia University. "But for somebody to lose a job in their 30s, they're facing lasting declines in earnings that affect their pensions too."

Boomers: Vacillations in the stock market might not worry a 20-something with decades left on his savings account. They might not freak out a 40-year old who doesn't expect to quit until she's 70. But if you're an older worker on the lip of retirement, your investments are your savings and your savings are about to become your principle source of income. "This last recession has definitely not treated everyone equally," said Susan Menke, an economist at market research firm Mintel. "Younger boomers [are] the 'sandwich' generation, burdened with educational expenses for their kids and, for some, health care costs for aging parents." As tuition and medical services get more expensive and the stock market lingers below its pre-recession high, even Boomers who have kept their jobs, their homes, and their savings and every right to be nervous about how the economy handles in their last years in the workforce.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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