This is what those Thanksgiving arguments are all about

Generational inequality.
Generational inequality.
Image: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
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Interior, early evening. A family gathers around a table with excessive amounts of food. Children have come home for the holidays. Somewhat distant relatives, summoned up from the corners of American suburbia, arrive via the oversized SUVs they continue to own despite running a household of two.

Everyone has promised themselves to be on good behavior. Some have even read articles on how to handle the fraught gatherings of American Thanksgiving. But then it always happens: A passing comment (perhaps an “OK Boomer” whispered under an exasperated millennial’s breath), and here you go—the battle of the generations.

Millennials, and older Gen Zers, on one side. Baby boomers, enjoying the support of the occasional silent, on the other. Gen X, ever the middle-child generation, in an uncomfortable between.

You know the rest.

The way in which Boomers and younger generations don’t seem capable of understanding each other when it comes to issues like money, work, the environment, and politics is frustrating. But behind it hides a dramatically different experience of the promises and shortcomings of the American economy: For boomers, the American dream delivered. For anyone who came after, it simply did not.

At an average age of 65, boomers (who are between the ages of 54 and 73) are leaving the workforce. Still, they hold 56.7% of America’s wealth. Their parents, who are between 74 and 91, have another 23.8%. Crumbs are left to Gen Xers, who have 16.3%, and there’s next to nothing (3.2%) for millennials, many of whom are not so young anymore (they range between 23 and 38).

This is especially striking when accounting for the fact that boomers make up only 25% of the population, and that they are actually outnumbered by millennials. The average net worth of a boomer household is $1.2 million, while for a millennial household it is just above $100,000. The disparity in median net worth is even more striking: It’s $13,600 for millennials, and $206,700 for baby boomers.

Older household have always had higher worths than younger ones. But the fork has not been this big before: Two decades ago, the older generation (at the time the silent one) was worth about seven times more than the younger one (at the time, Gen X)—respectively, $747,600 and $103,400; in 2019, it’s worth 12 times more.

While historically older generations have gradually relinquished wealth at the advantage of the younger ones as they left the workforce, the boomer generation’s share of wealth continues to grow, even though they began leaving the workplace about a decade ago.

Further, in the years before they overtook the silent generation, baby boomers were much closer to the older generation in wealth—in short, they could see solid potential for economic growth. But Gen X is a long way from having the kind of wealth boomers enjoy, and is not going to overtake them anytime soon. Millennials have it even harder. Hence the angst: When it was in the same position 20 years ago, Gen X had about twice as big a share of wealth as millennials have now, despite representing a smaller percentage of the population.