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Millennials are both rich and poor, studies suggest

Reports suggest that millennials are making more money than previous generations but must be more cautious due to economic conditions

Photo (c) Fertnig - Getty Images
Millennials’ spending habits are comparable to earlier generations once the effects of age, income, and demographic characteristics are taken into account, a report from the Federal Reserve suggests.

However, millennials tend to spend less money than earlier generations because they have less money than Gen Xers and baby boomers had at their age -- and this phenomenon is underpinning the industry-killing spree that millennials have been accused of setting in motion.

"Millennials are less well off than members of earlier generations when they were young, with lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth," wrote authors Christopher Kurz, Geng Li and Daniel J. Vine.

When it comes to family income (when controlling for age and work status), “Generation X and baby boomer households have a family income that is 11 percent and 14 percent higher, respectively, than that of demographically comparable millennial households,” the authors said.

Both rich and poor

Not long after the Fed published its report, the Pew Research Center came out with an analysis of its own.

Looking at data for a three-person-household, Pew found that millennial households are earning more than previous generations did at their age nearly any time in the past 50 years. The Fed had looked at data for individuals.

These contrasting study findings, as well as those from similar studies, have prompted publications like Quartz to deem millennials "the wealthiest generation,” while others like Slate have dubbed them “the brokest generation.”

A complicated financial picture

The portrait of millennials’ financial well-being isn’t black and white, experts say.

"Millennials are much more complicated from a broad-stroke financial picture than will easily fit in one financial box or generalization," Jason Dorsey, a researcher of millennials, consultant, and president of The Center for Generational Kinetics, told Business Insider.

In its report, the Fed noted that millennials are likely “paying a price for coming of age during the Great Recession, when new entrants to the labor market faced historically weak labor demand and unusually tight credit conditions.”

A number of studies have suggested that millennials have had a hard time recovering from the effects of entering the workforce during the Great Recession, especially when forced to contend with rising living costs, student loan debt, and other price increases across a range of industries.

Caring for aging family members is also taking a greater financial toll on millennials compared to older generations, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

But the financial discrepancy between millennials and their older counterparts might abate in time as a result of wealth inheritance from boomers, Dorsey said.

"From a big-picture viewpoint, millennials will likely receive the greatest wealth transfer in modern history — from the baby boomers," Dorsey said. "However, the reality is that baby boomers are healthier and living longer than even they planned, so that wealth transfer might not happen for 20-plus years."

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