For younger workers, wealth is more elusive

WASHINGTON — Pearl Brady has a stable job with good benefits and holds two degrees, a bachelor’s and a master’s. But despite her best efforts, she has no savings and worries that it will be years before she manages to start putting away money for a house, children, and eventually retirement.

‘‘I’m in that extremely nervous category,’’ said Brady, 28, a New Yorker who works for a union. ‘‘I know how much money I’m going to be making for the near term. I hope in my 30s and 40s to be able to save, but I have no idea how. It’s scary.’’

Brady has plenty of company. A study from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit Washington research institution, finds that Brady and her peers up to roughly age 40 have accrued less wealth than their parents did at the same age, even as the average wealth of Americans has doubled over the past quarter of a century.


Because wealth compounds over long periods of time — a dollar saved 10 years ago is worth much more than a dollar saved today — young adults probably face less secure futures for decades down the road, and even shakier retirements.

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‘‘In this country, the expectation is that every generation does better than the previous generation,’’ said Signe-Mary McKernan, an author of the study. ‘‘This is no longer the case. This generation might have less.’’

The study is one of many to show something of a perfect storm of economic trends battering younger workers. One is the collapse of the housing bubble. Young people who bought homes as prices started to decline in 2006 are often underwater on their mortgages today. But now that prices have fallen sharply and interest rates are remarkably low, many other young adults are locked out of the market because credit standards are tougher.

A second major trend is the rise of student loan debt, which has continued to grow, sometimes saddling students with burdens that extend into six figures and might take decades to pay down.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, younger workers have faced a brutal job market in the past half decade. The unemployment rate is 7.8 percent for workers between ages 25 and 34. For workers ages 45 to 54, the jobless rate is 5.5 percent, and it peaked at 8 percent in 2010. Those who held on to their jobs are often worse off. Wages, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated for a broad swath of workers for over a decade. For millions of workers, wages have actually declined through the recession and the sluggish recovery.