Family Finances

Boomers, Millennials, and the Truth about Financial Anxiety

November 27, 2019  • Karen Biddle Andres

All right, America. I’m calling a truce in the intergenerational wars – just in time for Thanksgiving.

#Okboomer and #Okmillennial have crossed over from snarky, social media trolling to real-world venues, including the  New Zealand Parliament, and I fear an eruption of inter-generational anger at this week’s Thanksgiving table.  At the table will be friends and family of all generations – Silent, Boomer, X, X-ennial, Millennial, Gen Z, and more.  On the holiday of giving thanks, it will be difficult to express gratitude if we are focused on dismissing one another and hurling insults (or candied yams).

We need a ceasefire.

These intergenerational skirmishes spring from differences both significant and trivial: environmental policy, tax policy, higher education financing, politics, technology usage, and the always-controversial avocado toast. Many of these schisms are too deep to be resolved at dinner.  But from my vantage point at the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, where we seek to illuminate and solve the most critical financial challenges facing American households, this growing rift in our society reflects a real fear of financial insecurity that is both justified and shared across generations.

New data shows only 29% of Americans are considered financially healthy. It’s not surprising: many workers’ real wages have stagnated and have become both volatile and unpredictable, while they are simultaneously facing quickly rising costs for housing, health care, dependent care, and higher education. This has left too many American families with record levels of consumer debt, including credit card debt, medical debt, and student loan debt, among others, as well as insufficient liquid savings and too little, or no, retirement savings. Put simply, the average American household income statement, balance sheet, and statement of cash flows aren’t looking good.

Financial insecurity is hitting Americans of all ages. Many generations are experiencing the unprecedented financial squeeze of student loan debt, which early indicators show contributes to delayed decisions to buy homes, or have children. Likewise, the Baby Boomers and beyond have discovered that the retirement years, historically thought of as a time of financial security, with pensions and Social Security kicking in, are increasingly characterized by rising debt levels, the decline of pensions and likely insufficient workplace retirement account balances, and the challenge of stretching those savings to last throughout lives that are getting longer and longer.

As a country, we would do well to address the fundamental question, What kind of financial security do we think all families in America deserve?  Are these the financial lives we want for ourselves and our families, across generations?

Then, we need to talk about how. How do we design policies and structure benefits, both public and private, to help us achieve financial security?  What does that look like?  How do we design paid leave to take care of both the young and old, accessible and affordable child care, reasonably priced higher education that prepares students for jobs that pay, and systems to deliver retirement security for everyone?  These are certainly questions for debate and respectful disagreement over your turkey and stuffing.

Playing the blame game may feel satisfying, but it’s not going to help any of us achieve financial security – today or for the long-term.

So let’s take a moment this Thanksgiving to step away from social media and really talk to each other.  Ask one another how it’s going on the financial front.  Listen to your extended family members’ financial challenges, and try to understand the emotional toll these challenges are taking.

For millennials: ask people older than you what it’s like trying to navigate retirement, with what is likely an insufficient – if not nonexistent – retirement savings balance.  Ask how they are managing their debt, which is likely higher than generations before them at the same age. Ask how they are planning for long term care costs, which are soaring.  When you listen, listen for fear, stress, and worry.

For Baby Boomers: ask the younger people at the table what it’s like to start their working life saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt.  Ask how they’re managing, if they’re working multiple jobs and struggling to pay rising rent costs. Ask whether they’re able to save or plan for big goals, like buying a house, or saving for retirement.  When you listen, listen for exhaustion, hopelessness, and, again, fear.

This Thanksgiving, let’s all acknowledge the shared frustration of working so hard to achieve financial security in an economy that isn’t really working for so many people. Could our shared financial concerns actually pull us closer together rather than push us apart? Let’s not let this generational battle be one more thing that divides us. If we’re going to fix these shared problems, we’re going to need to create a shared vision for what financial security should look like for all American families, and then make it happen together.

Ok, Boomer? Ok, Millennial? Good.

Now, somebody, please pass the pumpkin pie.  Nicely.

Karen Biddle Andres is Director of Policy and Market Solutions and Project Director of the Retirement Savings Initiative at the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program