It’s hard to compare myself with my parents. When they were my age — I’ll be thirty-five years old less than a month from now — they had two children, and the four of us were living in an apartment in upstate New York. I’m not married and I have no children. My father studied to be an environmental engineer, and I studied to be a music teacher. My situation is significantly different and probably shouldn’t be compared without making these points. When you compare yourself with your parents, you might have similar variables that make the comparison uneven.
Most middle class Americans are not better off than their parents today. When you look at average income, unless you’re in the top sliver of wealth, it has stayed roughly stagnant for at least a generation. The bottom 90% of income earners, those with incomes under $380,000 a year, have not seen their real purchasing power increase. Those in the top 1%, on the other hand, have seen their income increase by 33%, after accounting for inflation, in the past 20 years.
Even if incomes haven’t changed for middle class, the standard of living certainly has. I, and much of the middle class, can watch movies in high definition on a big screen in living rooms, while my parents had a 13-inch television. Today’s middle class dines out in restaurants frequently, while the middle class of the previous generation focused much more on cooking in the home. The middle class a generation ago didn’t place the stigma on renting an apartment rather than buying a house that today’s generation does, and it’s been normal for middle class individuals and families to own houses soon after starting a career or a family.
Another income to note is the trend over the past generation is the widening income gap between college-educated individuals and those only with high-school diplomas. The increase in education and holding different types of jobs than your parents might help in creating a feeling that you are better off.
In some cases, this feeling is misleading; a generation ago, workers entering the workforce may have had less lucrative jobs, but they had much less debt. Today’s graduates are tied to their student loan payments and credit card debt. Even for those with much better jobs than their parents, there was a sacrifice to get to that point.
Do you feel better off than your parents?
Published or updated February 16, 2011.