The study, “Retirement Security Across Generations: Are Americans Prepared for Their Golden Years?,” from Pew Charitable Trusts, examined the savings behavior of five age groups before the Great Recession. It also explored how wealth losses during the recession affected each group’s retirement security by calculating replacement rates, or how much annual pre-retirement income households will have available to spend after retirement.
The research looked at the net worth (assets minus debts), financial net worth (financial assets alone), and home equity of five generations: Depression babies, war babies, early boomers, late boomers, and Gen-Xers. The research showed that the youngest groups have less wealth than their older counterparts had at the same ages. Although all groups experienced wealth losses during the Great Recession, Gen-Xers took the hardest hit, losing almost half of their wealth. According to the findings, this lack of savings before the recession coupled with substantial losses in the downturn exposes younger groups to the real possibility of downward mobility in retirement.
“Late boomers and Generation-Xers lost significant amounts of wealth during the Great Recession, eroding their already low levels of assets,” said Erin Currier, director of Pew’s economic mobility project, who compiled the study. “As policymakers focus on Americans’ retirement security, particular consideration should be paid to how younger generations of workers can make up for these losses and prepare for the future.”
The study defined late boomers as those born between 1956 and 1965, at the end of the post-war “baby boom.” Generation-Xers were born between 1966 and 1975.
The findings of the study, which examined wealth gains and losses from 1989 to 2010 for all five generational groups, include:
- Early Boomers. Born between 1946 and 1955, this group was approaching retirement in better financial shape than those that came before them. Benefitting from both the dot-com boom and the housing bubble, early boomers in their 50s and 60s had higher overall wealth, financial net worth, and home equity than Depression babies (born between 1926 and 1935) or war babies (born between 1936 and 1945) had at the same ages, putting them in a strong financial position for retirement.
- Post-1955. Wealth accumulation and savings for those born after 1955 was more mixed. Gen-Xers (born between 1966 and 1975) had higher net worth than late boomers (born between 1956 and 1965) when both were in their 30s and 40s, but neither group had as much wealth as early boomers had at the same age. Similarly, late boomers had more wealth than early boomers when both were in their 40s and 50s, but neither had as much as the war babies did.
- Lagging Behind. Neither Gen-Xers nor late boomers were on track to exceed the financial net worth of those that immediately preceded them. In their 30s and 40s, Gen-Xers lagged behind late boomers by about $6,000 by this metric, and in their 40s and 50s, late boomers lagged behind early boomers by more than $5,000.
- Asset-to-Debt Ratios. Baby boomers and Gen-Xers have lower asset-to-debt ratios than older groups. Over the last two decades, Depression and war babies have been shedding debt, while baby boomers and Gen-Xers have been accumulating it. As of 2010, war babies’ asset levels were 27 times higher than their debts. In contrast, late boomers’ assets were about four times higher than their debts, and Gen-Xers’ assets were about double their debts.
- Gen-Xers Hit Hardest. While all generational groups had wealth losses in the Great Recession, Gen-Xers took the hardest hit. Both early boomers and late boomers were negatively affected by the recession at a critical point in their lives, losing 28% and 25%, respectively, of their median net worth. From 2007 to 2010, however, Gen-Xers lost nearly half (45%) of their wealth totals, an average of about $33,000, reducing their already low levels.
- Replacement Rates. The analysis shows younger people will not have enough assets for a secure retirement. Early boomers may be the last to retire with enough savings and assets. Even after the recession, they had acquired enough savings and wealth to replace 70% to 80% of their preretirement income. Replacement rates have steadily declined across the generations studied, putting the youngest on shaky financial footing. At the median, Gen-Xers will have enough resources to replace only about half of their pre-retirement income and late boomers will replace about 60%.
The data used in the study was from the Survey of Consumer Finances, collected by the Federal Reserve Board, and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, conducted by the University of Michigan. The full study, as well as an overview, can be downloaded from here.