Millennials and Long-Term Debt: How a Generation Ended Up in a Rut

Millennials getting slime dumped on them on a gameshow

Millennials are far removed from the carefree ’90s. | Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Nickelodeon

Tattoos, selfies, and soul-crushing levels of long-term debt: These are America’s millennials, ladies and gentlemen. Born between the early 1980s and the year 2000, millennials were raised during a largely fruitful time in American history. But they were too young to take advantage of cheap higher education and credit like their parents did. And then the Great Recession hit.

So an entire generation has had its wheels stuck in the mud. It’s a future different from what many pictured growing up during the ’90s and early 2000s, in which the economy was humming and the world was more or less on stable footing.

Selling Beanie Babies or Pogs on eBay isn’t going to get the millennials out of the hole. So it begs to be asked: How exactly did an entire generation end up in such a gigantic rut? An infographic, put together by Chicago-based psychiatric center Yellowbrick, gives a pretty good overview of not only where the debt came from, but its overall impact on daily life.

“Credit cards, student loans, mortgages, car payments — today’s millennials have more debt than ever, and studies show that there can be a long-term health effect on the stress this causes,” Yellowbrick’s study says. “Two-thirds of millennials aged 23 to 35 have at least one source of long-term debt, while one-third have more than one source.”

So how did it come to this?

Millennials and debt

A student chained to debt

It all comes back to student loan debt. | iStock.com

Digging deeper doesn’t offer much comfort. According to the infographic, almost 40% of Americans are loaded with credit card debt — with an average amount of $16,000 — and another 37% of the under-40 crowd have student loan debt, at an average of $40,000.

These aren’t balances that can be paid off in short order, either. The average salary for millennials is less than $35,000.

If you had to point to one thing in particular Yellowbrick highlights with its release is it has to come down to student loans. Student debt really seems to be the main factor millennials are struggling to deal with. And Yellowbrick even highlights in the middle of its graphic that “if the U.S. government were a private company, it would be the most profitable in the world purely from student loans.”

As we’ve highlighted before, student debt really has made a significant impact on the lives of millennials. While baby boomers and older Americans have largely looked at “lifestyle choices” for the main reasons behind the millennials’ refusal to “grow up,” the signs all point back to a hefty amount of student loan debt — debts in quantities previous generations didn’t have to deal with.

Wheels in the mud

A frustrated millennial looking over her financials

A frustrated millennial looks over her finances. | Thinkstock

This is the main reason millennials are reluctant to move out of their parents’ houses, get married, or buy cars. They don’t make enough money, and there’s too much debt. There’s no easy or fast way to fix the problem, as entire industries have been built on a cycle of revolving student debt.

Yellowbrick goes on to show student debt can actually cause further debts, as the inability to make payments might lead to personal loans or credit card debt, which might lead to lower credit scores and higher payments. It’s a cycle, and that’s not even getting into the emotional and psychological damage that’s being done.

Obviously, there are a lot of factors at play. But according to Yellowbrick, the issues that millennials are facing largely come back to the fact that they were all herded into colleges and universities and saddled with monstrous loans. Although personal responsibility does enter the conversation, we know these loans are pushed onto students who don’t really know the gravity of their situations. And because the loans can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, lenders and schools don’t have any skin in the game.

So they keep dishing them out.

Other debt

A woman holding credit cards

Credit card debt plays a role, too. | iStock.com/BernardaSv

The main sticking point, at least according to Yellowbrick’s research, is student debt. But there are also other types of debt that come into play. Not everyone goes to college, after all. And debt, in general, is a very serious issue for more than just Generation Y.

But a look at the average American household reveals debt is a multi-generational problem. According to a NerdWallet report, the average household in the U.S. carries a total debt load of nearly $135,000. For households carrying a specific type of debt, we’re looking at averages of roughly $50,000 in student loan debt, $29,000 in auto loan debt, and almost $17,000 in credit card debt.

The biggest piece of the debt pie, per NerdWallet, are mortgages. Per NerdWallet, the average American household owes more than $176,000 on their home loans. But we know many millennials have put off buying a house. So it’s hard to gauge how big of an issue that is for Gen Y.

Getting paid enough

Money check and pen

A check and a pen | iStock.com/Timurpix

It’s worth going back and touching on another important element: earnings. Average millennial salaries are still below $35,000. That will improve with time, as the generation ages and becomes more experienced. The next generation up, “Generation Z,” will then start moving into these positions. The important thing to remember is when it comes to salaries, millennials were entering the workforce during the Great Recession.

Research shows people who enter the workforce during recessions or economic contractions have their lifetime earnings stunted. One study said graduates entering the workforce during a recession see, on average, a 9% shock to their initial earnings, for example.

There are ways to overcome those initial losses. But for millions of Americans, the simple timing of their entry into the workforce is the problem. And it is going to hamstring their earnings for years to come. This is an issue we’ve seen all across the country. Employers, who were able to get away with paying low wages during and after the recession, are resisting pay increases. It’s yet another complicated piece of an already complicated puzzle.

You can read through Yellowbrick’s release to see even more statistics. But the point is this: Millennials were hosed, and there’s not much anyone can do to fix it.

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