US Inequality Is About Class, Not Generations

Baby boomers had the good fortune to come along at one of those rare moments in history when the richest among us were not doing so well in the clash of classes, writes Sam Pizzigati.

Riding a scooter in midtown Manhattan, April 2018. (Billie Grace Ward, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

By Sam Pizzigati

How much does the generation we belong to define the comfort of the lives we lead? Just about nothing impacts our comfort, suggests a recent spate of major media news analyses, more than our generation.

“Millennials had it bad financially,” as a Washington Post feature put it last month, “but Gen Z may have it worse.”

Demographers typically define millennials as those Americans born between 1980 and 1994. Gen Z covers the cohort that came on the scene between 1995 and 2012.

The tens of millions of Americans in both these generations, goes the standard analysis, enjoy precious little of the good life that has blessed America’s baby boomers, those lucky 60- and 70-year-olds born right after World War II between 1946 and 1964.

The New York Times earlier this year, for instance, interviewed a Michigan millennial who works as a university archivist. She’s still paying off, decades after graduating, her student loans.

Three years ago, this millennial bought a 10-year-old used car, a transaction that wiped out most of her savings. Many of her millennial peers, the archivist told the Times, are finally starting to buy homes and raise families, but “a lot of my generation has had to put that all on hold.”

Young people in Gen Z, the available data also make rather clear, are facing even greater economic challenges. Gen Z’ers are paying 31 percent more for housing than millennials, even after taking inflation into account, and 46 percent more for health insurance.

Gen Z has become, adds The Washington Post, “the first generation where recent college grads are more likely to be unemployed than the general population.”

Amid that general population, baby boomers stand economically supreme. Boomers, a group that makes up a mere 20 percent of the U.S. population, now hold 52 percent of the nation’s net wealth. The baby boom generation, sums up the Economist magazine, may well turn out to be “the luckiest generation in history.”

Analyses like these have been creating the fairly widespread impression that boomers have convincingly “won” what has been a generational war — at the expense of America’s younger generations.

But this “generational war” framing more distorts than describes the reality Americans are living. Millions of boomers in the United States today are not doing well economically. Significant numbers of millennials and Gen Z’ers are annually raking in millions.

What’s going on here? We’re not suffering through a generational war. We’re continuing to live through a clash of economic classes.

Amazon union demonstration in New York, September 2021. (Pamela Drew, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Baby boomers just happened to have had the good fortune to come along at one of those rare moments in history when the richest among us were not doing so well in that clash of classes. These boomers found themselves born into a postwar America that average people — after years of struggle — had fundamentally transformed.

By the late 1940s, across huge swatches of the United States, most workers carried union cards. The contracts their unions bargained made the country they called home the first industrial nation in the entire world where the majority of workers, after paying for life’s most basic necessities, actually had significant money left over.

Throughout those same mid-century years, meanwhile, America’s rich were facing top-bracket federal income tax rates that hovered around 90 percent.

The tax code of those years did, to be sure, have loopholes that America’s wealthiest could exploit. But these loopholes largely benefited only a narrow sliver of Americans of means, mostly those rich who owed their wealth to fossil fuels.

On the first annual Forbes 400 list in 1982, nine of America’s wealthiest top fifteen had Big Oil to thank for their fortunes.

The poorest deep pocket on the initial Forbes top 400 — Apple’s Armas Markkula Jr. — sat on a 1982 fortune worth a mere $91 million, the equivalent of about $296 million today.

On the current Forbes 400, America’s poorest mogul holds a fortune worth $6.9 billion, a stash over 23 times larger than the 1982 fortune at the bottom of the Forbes first modern-era top 400.

The business network CNBC has dubbed the wealth gap within the ranks of millennials “the new class war.” The “vast majority” of this generation, notes CNBC’s Robert Frank, is facing draining student debt, low-wage service-jobs and unaffordable housing.

On average, millennials at age 35 have held 30 percent less wealth than baby boomers at that same age. But the richest top 10 percent millennials have averaged 20 percent more wealth than their baby boom top 10 percent counterparts.

Today’s concentration of millennial — and Gen Z — wealth suits the purveyors of luxury watches, wines and classic automobiles just fine, points out a new Bank of America study of millennial and Gen Z households holding at least $3 million in investable assets.

Some 72 percent of deep pockets aged 43 and younger, the study adds, deem themselves “skeptical” about investing mainly in traditional stocks and bonds. By 2030, a Bain & Co. report released earlier this year estimates, affluent millennials will account for 50 to 55 percent of luxury market purchases and Gen Z’ers another 25 to 30 percent.

All this should serve to remind us about a basic simple truth. We can’t change the generation we get born into. We can change how the world we enter distributes income and wealth.

Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, co-edits His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.

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The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

15 comments for “US Inequality Is About Class, Not Generations

  1. Janet
    July 12, 2024 at 12:46

    Class analysis has all but disappeared in the US amid the Democrats’ obsessive focus on identity politics. And it wouldn’t be too cynical to assume that it was planned — the divide and conquer strategy that’s as old as the hills.

  2. D'Esterre
    July 11, 2024 at 21:59

    I’m a NZ citizen, and a Boomer, born very soon after WW2. Anyone more than a year older than I am isn’t a Boomer.

    In this country, we have the generational thing, with the added complication of race. Over the past few years, there’s been a rise in ethno-nationalism among some Maori activists, so it’s not just “rich Boomers” but “rich white Boomers”. Of course it’s all nonsense. The driving issue is class, not age or race.

    And, since the late 18C, when the first sealers and whalers arrived in NZ, there has been so much intermarriage that neither the indigenes nor the first settlers are the peoples that they were at the time of first contact. Though I’m not of Maori descent, nonetheless there are Maori in my extended family. I’d guess that there’d be few old pakeha families here which don’t have Maori connections, as does ours.

    Whatever our race, my generation was whacked about the ears economically by the arrival in NZ of neoliberalism in the 1980s. Some never recovered from it, and nowadays live a precarious existence. Housing – both purchase and rental – is pretty much unaffordable. It isn’t just younger people paying exorbitant rents: it’s also those Boomers forced into rental accommodation.

    The distribution of wealth is unequal, here in NZ as elsewhere. But here as elsewhere, the wealthy aren’t necessarily Boomers, possibly except where intergenerational wealth is involved. Nor, a fortiori, are they “white” – whatever that means in this polity.

  3. Paul Citro
    July 11, 2024 at 07:03

    A nation that consumes its own children is approaching collapse.

  4. Ruth
    July 10, 2024 at 17:41

    Generations are a fake division. People live in families. Families are made of multiple generations. My mother, my siblings, myself, and our children share our wealth & take care of each other. It’s “the working class” was doing better in the 1960s & doing worse now. Don’t even use “boomer” or “millennial” to describe the situation. We aren’t divided into separate generations. Families are united.

  5. Susan Siens
    July 10, 2024 at 16:00

    Ferdinand Lundberg wrote a book titled The Rich and the Super-Rich which was published in 1968. He blows the “richest individual” argument right out of the water. The wealthy people who run this country do not function as individuals. You must look at families — and this can be several hundred individuals — to see who holds massive wealth.

    The book also has an entire chapter about corporate criminality and how it usually gets a slap with a wet noodle. And there’s lots of information about how wealthy families avoided taxes, including plowing dividends right back into their many corporations. Yes, even when the tax rate was supposedly high, they never paid that much.

  6. David Hall
    July 10, 2024 at 15:15

    When I attended the University of Texas Austin in 1975 tuition and fees for 18 hours totaled 360.00. I worked 2 part time jobs and shared old frame houses with no A.C., rent around 100.00/mo. Life was an endless party plus we got a good education with no debt. USA is doomed to falling economic status among the nations because we’ve destroyed our education system. Don’t even know how it happened.

  7. Lois Gagnon
    July 10, 2024 at 07:34

    We haven’t paid enough attention to the damage the Powell Memo caused. It was basically a call to the corporate set to destroy the social gains adopted during the New Deal and social activism of the 1960s and early 70s.

  8. Share
    July 9, 2024 at 21:48

    I am one of the youngest of the boomer generation. Three of my older siblings had government jobs complete with benefits and pensions. The one government job I had was a temporary contract position in 1988. Contracted to the IRS. At least I got out unlike my coworker. She would work a two year contract, leave for a little while and twice was rehired for more two year stints. I found out early the Feds aren’t for we the people.

  9. john woodford
    July 9, 2024 at 17:43

    Presenting class conflict as a generational conflict is an effective way to prevent or dull class consciousness in wage earners. And also an effective way to prevent broader working class unity — the sort of political unity and clout that could lead to laws making it easier to organize or maintain trade unions, and to laws that would again impose a higher tax on great wealth. (The same, of course, can be said about presenting class conflicts as racial, gender, ethnic, regional and cultural conflicts.) Trade union rights and an effective progressive income tax are the sorts of political goals the Democratic Party in the USA is supposed to fight for, if you go by its p.r. and rep. But actually, since it’s controlled by moneybags and warlovers, it isn’t doing so. What’s to be done about this?

  10. July 9, 2024 at 17:37

    Finally someone has put it in Print!!! Stop blaming the generations, that is what the 1% want to do to Keep us divided. Thank you and share this all over!!!

  11. Carolyn L Zaremba
    July 9, 2024 at 16:07

    Hi there. I am a baby boomer. I am 75 years old. I have never owned a house or a car. My main source of income is social security. I still have to work and I have a part-time job two days a week. I live alone. My total savings amounts to less than $10,000 at the moment. I still have to pay an income tax bill that I have to do in payments. I have Long Covid. I have to pay health insurance premiums for my supplemental insurance to top up Medicare.

    When I was young education did not cost a fortune, that’s true. But since I didn’t get the memo that told me I had to dedicate my life to becoming a millionaire just to live a decent life, I am poor. I feel sorry for the younger kids who are getting ripped off by the capitalist system. But most of my generation knows why the boom happened. It happened because after World War II every other capitalist country was a pile of rubble, so the USA lucked out for a couple of decades being the only country that could manufacture anything. It could afford to give a little. Not anymore.

    I don’t want to hear any more from the younger generations who blame my generation for the disaster of present day life. And I especially don’t want to hear from them if they continue to support the capitalist system that screwed them. I’m sorry for them.

  12. bardamu
    July 9, 2024 at 15:54

    Money was easier for some generations at a particular age than for others at that same age. That is true, but all it means is that economy goes up and down. Money was easier when we Boomers were young because it was less unequally distributed than it is today. It was very unequal then, but it is way worse now.

    That is part of the class divide. And that makes more minorities and more people of each and all gender categories disadvantaged than do all racial and gender and age-related prejudices. Class is the central first-line oppressive mechanism of society, with police and the military following in case of troubles.

    The lack of (almost) any discussion of class per se in the US means that there a left no longer exists (much) in public discourse.

  13. Drew Hunkins
    July 9, 2024 at 15:11

    No question Boomers had it better than Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z. Undoubtedly Boomers had it easier.

    However, Boomers still suffered under exploitative corporate capitalism, just not to the extent that the the other generations have.

    The cost of living was n0where near as horrendous for Boomers as it has been for subsequent generations. Compare the cost of a two-bedroom house c. 1978 to today and it’s beyond laughable, same with the cost of a typical sedan. Rents for apartments were also much more affordable back when Boomers were coming of age.

    Also, Boomers had good manufacturing jobs available for them, even if they failed to obtain a high school diploma. By the time Gen X came along those jobs were quickly disappearing. Moreover, Boomers came of age during the time of strong labor unions; now only about 5% of the private sector workforce is unionized. During the mid-1980s an assault was waged against good solid labor unions by private union-busting consulting firms which decimated them by the late 1990s.

    Finally, it’s important to note that many Boomers were allowed to file for full discharge of their student loan debt via bankruptcy. This law was changed c. 1978 to make SL debt no longer eligible for discharge during bankruptcy, thereby saddling future generations to a lifetime of debt bondage. Joe Biden was instrumental in changing the law in the late ’70s to make it impossible to ever be able to file for SL discharge in bankruptcy proceedings.

    • floyd gardner
      July 9, 2024 at 20:09

      Thanks, Drew.

      • Bushrod Lake
        July 10, 2024 at 17:01

        Ditto. And let’s not forget the materials for housing are still relatively cheap – one can do a lot with a shovel, cement mixer, skill saw and a hammer – but you will need a piece of land which gets cheaper the further out in the country it is. For education consider the library. For money, find something other people need; there’s a lot of older people that need stuff.
        The coming generations are on their own; that’s their best future forward.

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