Report: Wealth Gap Widens Between Old And Young

A new Pew report finds a widening age gap in economic well-being. Older adults are significantly better off than a quarter century ago, while the median net worth of households headed by younger adults has fallen dramatically.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. We've been hearing a lot lately about the gap between rich and poor in this country. Well, now a new angle on that gap between young and old. Research out today finds that older Americans are significantly better off than seniors a generation ago, but young adults have fallen dramatically behind.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Now, seniors are expected to have more wealth than the young. They've had a lifetime to accumulate it, but the diversions since 1984 is striking. The Pew Research Center compared net worth, everything a household owns minus debts adjusting for inflation, seniors now have 42 percent more. While those under age 35: 68 percent less.

PAUL TAYLOR: The older group has 47 times more wealth than the younger group. This is an enormous gap.

LUDDEN: The largest on record, says Pew director Paul Taylor. Taylor says the recent recession accelerated this trend. Seniors were simply not as affected by job losses, since many are retired, or the housing crash, since most bought their homes long ago. Young adults, by contrast, face crushing unemployment and likely bought their homes at the height of the market bubble.

But Taylor says the opposing fortunes of young and old predate the recession and reflect a number of social and economic changes. For one thing, a much higher share of older adults today are still employed.

TAYLOR: This may be out of economic necessity, but to some degree - and we know this from our own polling - it's because older adults are healthier, they're living longer and they're less likely to say to themselves at age 60 or 62 or 65, it's time for me to retire.

LUDDEN: Meanwhile, the share of young adults in the workforce is down since 1984 and for those still in it?

TAMARA DRAUT: One of the most striking things that has happened to young people is a major decline in their earning power.

LUDDEN: Tamara Draut is with the research and advocacy group, Demos, and the author of "Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead," and that book came out in 2006.

DRAUT: We lost some of the good, middle class, blue collar jobs. Those have been shipped overseas. What's taken their place is lower-wage, service-sector jobs. Young men, overall, have typical earnings today that are 90 cents for every dollar their dad earned.

LUDDEN: At the same time, Draut says soaring college costs have left many young people in deep debt, a point frequently heard at Occupy Wall Street protests.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We are 99 percent.

LUDDEN: Pew director Paul Taylor says polls show Americans feel strong sympathy with these protests and today's report may drive home why.

TAYLOR: At some point, this starts to call into question one of the most basic tenants of the American dream, which is that each generation does better than the one that comes before.

LUDDEN: A Demos survey last week finds nearly half of young adults don't think they will. Taylor says it may be too early to say, but the Pew report makes clear that young people are starting out well behind their parents' generation.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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