November 7, 2021

Millennials own nothing because the economy screwed us over for 25 years – but older generations still try and blame it on our work ethic

[Business Insider, Leung/Insider Intelligence]

  • My parents don’t understand why I don’t own a house, a car, or a retirement savings account.
  • My generation has fewer job opportunities, more student debt, and outrageous housing prices.
  • It’s far worse for us than it was for previous generations.
  • Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer based in Mississippi.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

A few months ago my parents chastised me for not really owning anything. I have few savings, don’t own a house, investments, or even a 401K due to financial pressures prior to the pandemic, some of which only worsened last year.

This is a struggle many millennials face, but I, a first-generation immigrant, often feel guilty and unworthy knowing my net worth is in the negative. As a child, my mother wanted me to go into a respectable, high-paying, stable profession, such as a lawyer, accountant, or perhaps a high-ranking corporate position. She always expected me to buy a home, get married by a certain age, and eventually take care of her as she got older. Instead, I am a writer on a freelance income with student loan debt that will wreck my finances once repayment provisions begin again in 2022.

It’s hard to make my parents understand that the United States they dreamt of and brought me to in 1989 has drastically changed.

The economy is stacked against millennials

According to a CNBC report, millennials owned only 5.19% of the United States’ total wealth in 2020 – four times less than what boomers owned at the same age. We are a generation that saw income inequality increase just as the Great Recession caused hiring freezes, decreased our odds of finding a good job, and student loan debt skyrocketed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that high student loan debt caused millennials to delay major life decisions. Fewer earnings meant delaying marriage, home and car purchases, and not being able to move out of our parents’ homes – or having to move back in during a crisis.

In drastic situations, fewer earnings also leads people to delay medical care and avoid scheduling routine physical checkups, leaving issues undiagnosed. Navigating the maze of health insurance costs and policies in the United States is also difficult, and takes a toll on our finances. Even for a healthy person, the price of having a child at a hospital can be prohibitive and childcare, care for aging parents, and other line items necessary to sustain a healthy family are frequently financially debilitating.

The Great Recession also affected housing, creating shortages that were driving up rent even before the pandemic. Stagnating and low wages are only part of the problem: Even with higher wages, many millennials live paycheck to paycheck because of the many debts they’ve had to take on in order to get by.

The rising costs of living we are currently experiencing, and will be sure to continue experiencing without intervention from the federal and state government, are only going to make it more challenging for millennials, Gen Z, and future generations to build wealth unless we work to ensure pay equity and reasonable costs of living. Rent control, controls on house-flipping that artificially increases the cost of land and rent, and even climate justice that would prevent devastating fires would give millennials peace of mind when it comes to securing housing.

Most personal finance advice doesn’t apply for our generation

Though well-intentioned, many articles on saving money or generating wealth aren’t helpful to working-class, marginalized, or economically hard-hit people who have little access to wealth and social capital to begin with.

Such finance articles often assume that people who want to save money can afford to spend money at coffee shops, subscriptions, gyms, or can afford online shopping to start with. There’s no way to save $4 per day on a cup of coffee if you’re not in the position to do so in the first place.

Many millennials, especially immigrants and refugees, grew up with the idea that we’d not only come to this country to live a better life, but to own nicer things. In family structures where scarcity was often a factor in everyday life, one of the few ways we can prove our parents’ investments and sacrifices were worth it is to achieve an extraordinary amount of financial success.

Some people have done so, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Learning financial literacy is a challenge for people who grew up with survival as their main goal. Fact is, it’s harder for millennials to move up in their social and income status than previous generations. According to a 2019 analysis by Stanford University, there are also racial homeownership gaps among millennials because every gain from the reforms meant to help people of color own homes after the Civil Rights Movement has been lost.

Though many millennials are able to secure wages that are higher than the federal minimum wage, $7.25 per hour is 31% less than the minimum wage in 1968, once inflation is accounted for. As millennials, we’re constantly at the whim of market forces that throw us into disarray, with little or no safety nets, and we regularly have to fight against misconceptions about our work ethic or ambitions. But that can change.

Success does not equal owning something

First, we can stop tying our success and sense of accomplishments to owning things. It’s okay to grieve the opportunities and wages we’ve lost while recognizing that we have done our best. We were taught we lived in a world of promise just as the opportunities conferred to past generations began to disappear. Then, we had a pandemic to consider.

Millennials can also talk to the elders in our lives and explain our side of this. The systemic obstacles and injustices we’ve faced in our quest to make a living are real and different from what our parents faced. Our cost of living, healthcare, childcare, and education expenses are exorbitant, and they weren’t this high for previous generations. This may not change the minds of our elders, but it can give us something to consider.

We can keep voting, educating, and organizing for our rights, and people of all generations can work to understand how decisions made in the past created the systems, inequities, and issues millennials and the next few generations must grapple with.

On top of everything I’ve mentioned, we also have climate change to deal with – all of which will impact our finances and mental health. The constant need to continue changing minds and ensuring the next generations don’t go through what we go through can be exhausting, but chasing after it is well worth it.

Finally, we can surround ourselves with like-mided individuals who understand us and can provide moral support and remember to rest whenever we can. Our world and its prospects are exhausting. We needn’t feel guilty about finding a few moments of peace and quiet.

By Ingrid Cruz

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