Jeanne Sahadi Commentary:
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Paycheck paralysis
Moving up financially has gotten harder for young adults, one expert contends.
By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer

NEW YORK ( If ever you find yourself pining for your 20s or 30s, you might reconsider.

Sure, you'll never look that good again. But to hear Tamara Draut tell it, folks in their 20s and 30s today from middle- and lower-income households primarily have never had it so tough financially.

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In her book, "Strapped: Why America's 20-and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead," Draut cites a number of hindering factors. Key among them: debt coupled with paycheck paralysis.

Starting their adult lives with zero in the bank would be a huge improvement over the debt many in the 18-34 age group shoulder from school loans and credit card balances incurred to get a college degree and to support themselves on low wages after graduation. And then there are those who incur debt to pay for some college but never graduate.

Draut and others have argued that the college degree today has become the equivalent of the high-school degree of yesteryear: a requirement to secure a middle-class income.

But the increased financial investment required to get the degree doesn't necessarily yield a proportional increase in wages.

Draut, who runs the economic opportunity program at the think tank Demos, notes that a man with college degree or higher in 2002 earned about $49,000. That's about $3,000 less than what a male college graduate in 1972 earned and only about $6,000 more than what a male high school graduate in 1972 made. (All figures are in 2002 dollars.)

While it's still true that your lifetime earnings increase dramatically the higher your degree, "education is no longer a slam-dunk," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's "You need the right education, a continuing education and talent."

Not just the province of the young

And paycheck paralysis certainly isn't limited to those in their 20s and 30s, nor is the peril of a rapidly changing economy.

Between 1979 and 2004, the median weekly earnings of a man between 35 and 44 fell 7.8 percent after adjusting for inflation, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For men between 45 and 54, their median weekly earnings fell 2.3 percent.

A big reason for that decline, Zandi said, is the decline in manufacturing jobs due to global competition.

Women during the same 25-year period fared considerably better. The median weekly earnings of female workers between 35 and 44 rose 20 percent, while they rose 25 percent for those between 45 and 54.

Those increases are likely related to several factors, Zandi said: There are 25 million more working women today than in 1979, and their skills, educational attainment and tenure have all increased. Meanwhile wage discrimination has been reduced. In 1979, for example, women between 35 and 44 earned about 58 cents for every dollar a male peer earned. Today, they earn about 76 cents.

At the household level, there has been a 30 percent rise in median income since 1967, according to data from the Census Bureau. But in the past few years, median household income has remained flat, and real median earnings have actually fallen for both men and women.

In any case, macro statistics can never tell the full tale.

Even when a person's income does keep pace with inflation over time, for example, it's unlikely to keep pace with the meteoric rises in the costs of education, healthcare and, in some places, housing.

Pity the first-time home buyer in San Francisco where the median price of a home exceeds $700,000.

Nor do overall statistics adequately reflect the shifts in thinking and behavior that can result from economic and social change over the years.

In talks with three of my colleagues who are a part of the 18-34 demographic, they all thought the "woe-are-we" argument that Draut makes for Gen Xers is a bit overdone. Not that her larger point isn't well taken that an increasing number of younger adults are facing greater economic barriers, and as a society we might want to rectify that.

But it's not a textured view of a generation's experience. In the late 1990s, there were plenty of recent college grads with impressive salaries, impressive titles and a brash sense of entitlement. All that washed away when the Internet boom went bust. And folks have had a very hard time in the job market since. But so have their elders.

What's more, there's no real sense in Draut's book of the advantages Gen Xers may have, or the choices they may voluntarily make that can affect their financial futures.

My colleague Dave noted some of those advantages. "People aren't limited to a single career path -- such as women only being teachers or secretaries -- and very few of my peers seem afraid of throwing away five years' worth of work at a company to shift gears and embark on a new, unrelated career path. Overall, I think we're more savvy about what our options are."


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Are you in a May/December marriage (difference in age of at least 10 years) and have financial questions because of the age difference? MONEY Magazine would like to help you answer them. Contact Kate Ashford at with your story.


Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at Top of page

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