Why are millennials broke? Systems. Not choices.

I recently read an online discussion in which Baby Boomers and Gen Xers resoundingly chastised millennials who don’t save enough for retirement. It seems that instead, millennials are struggling with student debt. The crowd was quick to dismiss the problem as irresponsible millennials spending too much for college degrees that pay too little (e.g. Art History).

Really? Millennials (raised by Boomers and Gen Xers, by the way) are an entire generation of people who simply made bad college choices at historically unprecedented levels? Get real. Remember who chooses to attend college and decide on a major: An 18-year-old with no real world experience, who probably knows nothing about modeling lifetime financial implications of their decisions. Expecting them to be able to choose well is naive. Indeed, many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers made really bad choices. But when they were college age, the system was different. A bad choice, financially, wouldn’t—and didn’t—cripple you for life.

The fundamental economics of education and saving have changed.

That was Then

When Gen Xers were growing up, a college education cost a total of about a year and a half’s salary. MIT four-year tuition was $40,000 before books and expenses. A graduating student could get a job that paid a salary in the $30,000 range.

Furthermore, students could get jobs that paid enough to make a serious dent in student expenses. On-campus student jobs paid about $10, and a 1/4-time job would bring in $5,000 a year. That’s enough to pay half of the tuition bill. Today, student jobs still pay about $10. Needless to say, it won’t be covering half of the tuition bill.

To make up the difference, student loans fill the gap. Student loan interest rates were comparable to rates offered in savings accounts, so once a graduate started saving money, their asset base could compound at about the same rate as their student loans, so their net worth could be at least somewhat stable.

Starting salaries generally paid a living wage (enough for rent, food, utilities, a bit of entertainment, and savings), without the need for multiple jobs. And a college degree was a genuine ticket to a better-than-average job.

This is Now

Today, a college education costs closer to 4 years’ starting salary. MIT tuition is about $184,000.

Debt loads can’t be easily reduced by student jobs. No jobs available to students can make much of a dent in the $46,000/year tuition. Student jobs still pay in the $10-$12/hour range.

A starting salary of, say, $50,000 (higher than many are likely to get) isn’t actually enough to live in many cities while paying down student debt. While saying “move somewhere cheap” sounds attractive, the kind of jobs that make use of a college education are often located in big cities that aren’t that cheap.

Student loan interest rates are much higher than you can get in savings accounts, they aren’t dischargeable via bankruptcy. And the college degree that cost all this money is simply needed to get a job at all. Except from a certain class of top-tier schools, it isn’t a ticket to a comparatively higher salary.

Our Choices are as Bad as Millennials’

Everything I’ve read about Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is that we suck at saving money. We may have been living nice lifestyles, but we’re anything but role models when it comes to good lifetime financial decisions. But unlike millennials, we lived in a time where circumstances gave us decent lifestyles despite our bad choices. And our bad choices will, again, fall on the millennials. Our retirement years will make their middle-age a living hell, as they struggle to deal with an aging population that saved nothing and expects to be supported.

Millennials probably aren’t better at long-term financial planning than the rest of us, but they likely aren’t any worse. They were born into a set of circumstances, however, where the road to success that worked for us—a college education—had changed. That road, itself, costs more, benefits less, and creates circumstances that would be just as devastating for any Gen Xer or Baby Boomer.

Millennials don’t save? Of course not. Neith…

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