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Will Today’s Millennials Ever Live in a More Equal USA?

Every three years researchers with the Federal Reserve fan out across the United States to conduct thousands of interviews with Americans at every economic level. The data these interviews generate drive the Fed’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances.

The latest edition of this Survey series has just appeared, complete with the most comprehensive, up-to-date info we now have available on who has wealth in the United States and who doesn’t.

In that who-doesn’t category go the households of the nation’s millennials, those Americans born between the early 1980s and 1996 or so.

The youngest of this millennial generation, Americans in their mid to late 20s, hold just $7,512 in median household net worth, notes an analysis of the new Fed data from the stat site DGYDJ. In other words, half of millennial families have less than $7,512 in wealth, half have more

The oldest millennial grouping, 35-to-39-year-olds, do hold somewhat more in net assets, but not nearly enough to afford a down payment on an average home. The typical millennial in this age bracket has just $55,519 in net worth.

The wealth of the nation’s richest 1 percent, from the vantage point of America’s most typical millennials, must seem like the handiwork of some alien universe. Merely to enter the nation’s top 1 percent, the new Fed data show, a U.S. family now needs a personal fortune worth at least $11.1 million.

Most of our 1 percenters today, not surprisingly, turn out to be considerably older than America’s millennial generation. The average age within our nation’s current top 1 percent: 62.

These super-rich 1 percenters have accumulated stashes of wealth that would have been almost unimaginable a generation or two ago. Half of them hold over $17.6 million. The top 1 percent’s richest tenth have amassed personal fortunes worth at least $43.2 million.

A generation from now, today’s millennials will have moved deep into their 50s and 60s. They will have reached the age when people usually attain their maximum personal wealth. Will that wealth run greater than the wealth of our contemporary super rich? That prospect hardly seem remotely possible, not with typical millennials today holding nest eggs that seldom reach six figures.

But the picture changes if we look within today’s millennial generation. Typical millennials may not hold much wealth, but some millennials hold plenty. The millennial generation, the new Survey of Consumer Finances data make plain, rates as stunningly unequal.

Some numbers: The richest 1 percent of the youngest millennial age cohort, those 25 to 29, hold at least $606,188 in net worth, a total 81 times the personal wealth of the typical millennial in that age bracket. The oldest millennial grouping, the 35-to-39-year-olds, show a similar spread. The top 1 percent within this age cohort holds at least $4.03 million in net worth, 73 times that age group’s median — most typical — wealth level.

By comparison, the households of Generation X’ers — those born between the mid-1960s and 1980 — show narrower economic divides. The richest 1 percent of younger 40-somethings have personal fortunes 62 times larger than typical millennials in their age group. The top 1 percent among older 40-somethings hold 64 times as much.

Today’s millennial rich have already distanced themselves from their age peers almost as strikingly as the rich in the most unequal age bracket of the baby boomer generation. The top 1 percent of Baby Boomers aged 55 to 59 now hold 90 times the wealth of typical baby boomers that age.

Let’s ponder these stats for a moment. The baby boomer rich have had four decades, as adults, to distance themselves economically from their fellow boomers. The millennial rich have had just a decade or two to do that distancing and yet have already opened up a gap between themselves and their far less wealthy brethren that stretches about as wide as today’s largest boomer divide.

So what do these numbers tell us about the future? Money makes money. The more wealth you have today, the more wealth you’ll have tomorrow. Those top 1 percenters of the year 2050 who hail from the millennial generation figure to be significantly richer than today’s baby boomer 1 percenters. The millennial rich have had, in effect, a head start on accumulating grand private fortunes.

All these projections about 2050 assume, of course, that nothing will happen between now and then that significantly changes the trajectory of how we distribute wealth in the United States. All this figuring assumes that the nation’s wealthiest will continue to capture an enormously outsized share of the wealth our economy generates.

We can’t afford to let that happen.

In 2019, the People’s Policy Project points out, households worth at least $1 million held just under 80 percent of all U.S. personal wealth, up from just over 60 percent in 1989, the year the Federal Reserve began the Survey of Consumer Finances series. If this trajectory of wealth concentration continues, our nation’s millennials will gray within a nation where the most awesomely affluent control nearly 99 percent of society’s wealth.

That would be a social disaster for millennials. That would be a social disaster for us all.

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book: The Case for a Maximum Wage (Polity). Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970  (Seven Stories Press). 

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