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.
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.
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.