Last week, the Pew Research Center released a new report about the "rising age-gap in economic well-being." Although the Occupy Wall Street movement has called attention to the vast wealth gap between the so-called 99 percent and the 1 percent, Pew decided to take a closer look at trends in the distribution of wealth by age groups.
The results should be cause for concern for all young people, including Bowdoin students. According to the Pew Center's analysis of two important U.S. Census Bureau sources, the household wealth of older Americans has increased in the past 25 years, but there have been precipitous declines for younger Americans.
Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a household headed by someone 65 or older rose from $120,000 to $170,000 (in 2010 dollars), an increase of 42 percent. During the same period, the median net worth of a household headed by someone under 35 fell from $11,500 to $3,700, a 68 percent decline. For those households headed by someone between the ages of 35 to 44, the median net worth fell by 44 percent.
Salaries for young people have declined as well. U.S. Census Bureau Data show that college graduates in 2011 made, in real terms, 3.5 percent less than the previous year. The decline was greater for men (5.3 percent) than it was for women (1.4 percent), but women have lower starting salaries in the first place—a full 15 percent less, according to one study at Rutgers.
The poverty statistics for younger Americans are even more depressing. In 1967 only 12 percent of households headed by under-35-year-olds were living in poverty. In 2010, this number increased to 22 percent.
Moreover, the poverty line is much lower than you might imagine. A couple with one child and a total annual income of $18,000 does not count as being in poverty; you've got to be even poorer than that, but one fifth of households headed by young people are still in this wretched category.
Of course, the first step towards gaining net worth and avoiding poverty is getting a job. Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran a whole series of articles on "Generation Jobless," referring to the dire employment prospects for people 24 years of age and under. A recent study by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers found that among U.S. college graduates from the class of 2010, only 56 percent had a job a year later in the spring of 2011.
For the Class of 2012, this means that they will not only be competing with each other, but also with all of the seniors from 2010 and 2011 who were looking for jobs right out of college but didn't find anything.
Now, of course, not all graduating seniors are looking for jobs right away, so the survey numbers are not a clean measure of employment rates. Since individual schools are reluctant to publish their job placement statistics when they are not good, it is difficult to know the precise success rate of particular college's graduates in today's economy. And of course making predictions about the future is even more fraught.
But it is clear that, on average, it is harder for young people to find jobs, that real salaries for college graduates are declining, that household wealth for younger Americans is plummeting, and that more young people than ever before will be in gut-wrenching poverty.
On average. On average. Bowdoin students do not believe that they are average. And they aren't. With only a 15 percent acceptance rate for the class of 2015, Bowdoin is among the most selective institutions of higher learning in the country. And many of you have wealthy families on whom you can rely if things do not go well right out of college. Your generation may be jobless, but hopefully you won't be.
So the lesson might seem to be this: do not lose focus; do not be distracted by politics. Keep your nose to the academic grindstone, keep building those networks, and the statistics won't apply to you, or to anyone you care about.
Or you might take a broader view. As John Dalberg-Acton warned many years ago, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In our society, wealth is highly correlated with power, and a small number of extravagantly wealthy people are getting dangerously close to having absolute power.
Those in power will feed the rest us platitudes about the American Dream and will tell us that a rising tide lifts all boats. But the statistics suggest that, on average, these are myths. Convenient myths, for they keep us from rethinking the system, rethinking the justice of a situation in which the wealthy few accumulate obscene amounts while young people struggle to find jobs and get out of poverty.
Do what you can to save yourself in the dismal situation you have inherited, but do look up from your Solo cups and at least contemplate whether you really think the system is fair.
Kristen Ghodsee is an associate professor of gender and women's studies. Scott Sehon is a professor of philosophy.