For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession.
I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, given that the economy has now been growing for almost a decade. But the truth is that younger Americans have not benefited much.
Look at incomes, for starters. People between the ages of 25 and 34 were earning slightly less in 2017 than people in that same age group had been in 2000:
The wealth trends look even worse. Since the century’s start, median net worth has plummeted for every age group under 55:
Why is this happening? The main reason is a lack of economic dynamism. Not as many new companies have been forming since 2000 — for reasons that experts don’t totally understand — and existing companies have been expanding at a slower rate. (The pace of job cuts has also fallen, which is why the unemployment rate has stayed low.) Rather than starting new projects, companies are sitting on big piles of cash or distributing it to their shareholders.
This loss of dynamism hurts millennials and the younger Generation Z, even as baby boomers are often doing O.K. Because the layoff rate has declined since 2000, most older workers have been able to hold on to their jobs. For those who are retired, their income — through a combination of Social Security and 401(k)’s — still outpaces inflation on average.
But many younger workers are struggling to launch themselves into good-paying careers. They then lack the money to buy a first home or begin investing in the stock market. Yes, older workers face their own challenges, like age discrimination. Over all, though, the generational gap in both income and wealth is growing.
Given these trends, you’d think the government would be trying to help the young. But it’s not. If anything, federal and state policy is going in the other direction. Medicare and Social Security have been spared from cuts. Programs that benefit younger workers and families have not.