There are few traditions as old as that of cross-generational griping. Americans can scarcely finish complaining about how their parents “just don’t understand” before discovering that — to their complete shock — their own children might do the exact same thing about them. In truth, there really isn’t any single answer to which generation “had it worse.” After all, even if there was a clear metric by which to judge how difficult life was during one era, no member of a generation will experience their times in quite the same way as another. At the end of the day, the assumption that one generation has it easier — or worse — than another generation is, in and of itself, a little ridiculous.
But, since none of that has stopped anyone before, you might as well dive into your next argument about how easy kids today have it with a little more ammunition than the ubiquity of smartphones. As such, GOBankingRates has jumped into getting as close to a real answer to this age-old debate as one can realistically come. By examining how things have changed in regards to going to college, launching a career and buying a home, GOBankingRates painted a clearer picture of how the fluctuations in the American economy may — or may not — have conspired to really make life harder for the members of one generation versus another.
Last updated: Dec. 22, 2020
Defining Baby Boomers vs. Generation X vs. Millennials vs. Generation Z
To figure out who really had it worst, the study examined college education costs, the job market and the housing market for each generation during the period of their lives where that mattered most. However, to get a sense of that, you have to define those generations first.
To start, GOBankingRates used age ranges defined by Pew Research Center. From there, the midpoint birth year of each generation was used for comparison: 1955 for baby boomers, 1972 for Generation X, 1988 for millennials and 2004 for Generation Z. Then, based on when you would be attending college, finding a job and buying a home — assuming your life followed the traditional arc — the study looked at the total costs and challenges associated with each of those major life events for a person born of the median age for their generation.
The Cost of College
A college education has long been crucial in building wealth, but paying for it has never been easy. Assuming students attended a four-year public institution between the ages of 18 and 22, the study determined the average cost of tuition for baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials and Gen Zers using estimates on the average annual cost of tuition, fees and room and board from College Board — adjusting for inflation.
So, based on those fluctuating costs, which generation had to make the toughest choice between crushing student debt burdens and facing a career without a degree?
A college education beginning in the 1973-74 academic year and finishing up in the spring of 1977 cost the average baby boomer $39,780.04 in 2020 dollars — a sum that wouldn’t even get you through your sophomore year at today’s prices.
Even if boomers had opted for a pricier private college at the time, the costs would have been equivalent to just over $80,000 in 2020 dollars for all four years — just shy of what you might expect to pay for four years at a public university today.
Pictured: College students purchasing books at an American University bookstore in the 1970s.
The median Gen Xer would have started college in the 1990-91 academic year and wrapped up their degree by 1994, most likely making them the last generation to understand how frustrating it was to register for classes in person.
During that time, they would have shelled out just over an inflation-adjusted $43,857.01 for tuition, fees, room and board at the average four-year public university, or just shy of $115,000 for a private college. In real dollars, tuition costs rose with a compounded annual growth rate of over 7% a year from fall of 1973 through the fall of 1990.
Millennials who started college in fall 2006 and graduated in spring 2010 would have needed just over an inflation-adjusted $70,000, to cover most costs for four years at a public university. That comes out to a CAGR of 5.98% in real dollars from 1990 to 2006, meaning tuition costs actually slowed their rate of increase between Gen X and millennials.
For a private university, the bill would have been in excess of $165,000 over four years, which is more than double what their parents would have paid.
Not that their parents needed a reminder, but the fall of 2022 marks the first year of college for members of Gen Z born in the midpoint year. While no one can know with certainty what college will cost in the future, looking at what four years of tuition, fees and room and board cost now should be — fingers crossed — pretty close to what they’ll end up owing.
So, with the College Board putting the average published costs at $21,950 — and a 2.3% increase on the year before — that equates to a projected four-year total of $90,875.81. And if you’re so ambitious as to think private school might be worth it? At $49,870 a year, coupled with a year-over-year growth rate of 3.4%, you should expect a degree to come to just shy of $210,000.
The Verdict: Gen Z Is in for a Very Expensive College Education
It’s not hard to see who had it best: clearly, the boomers lived in an era when the cost of a college education was fundamentally different than what it is today. Unless, of course, you wound up paying for your millennial children’s college, but that’s a question for a different study.
However, as for who had/has it worst? Well, that same trend toward higher costs for college has pretty much continued unabated since, meaning that it’s most likely Gen Z that will have it worst when it comes to college. Not only will they need more money — comparably — than any previous generation, but the shift toward a service economy also means that a career without that pricey education is harder than ever.
The Job Market
Few things will do more to improve overall quality of life than a booming economy that keeps people working regularly and earning enough to live on. In particular, the earlier you can start your career, the sooner you’re building wealth and contributing to a 401(k). And, if you know anything about compound interest, you’ll know just how important those extra few years of growth are when you’re approaching retirement or getting ready to send your Gen Z kid off to their expensive college.
To gauge the way each generation is impacted by economic trends, let’s take the prime years for job searching — ages 22 to 32, when most people are out of college and starting their lives — and compare the job markets for each generation in that 10-year span.
Despite growing up during the flourishing economy of the 1960s, the typical baby boomer actually faced some pretty tough times when they first hit the job market. Between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the economy went through a rough period disrupted by the energy crisis and stagflation. The average unemployment rate in the key job-searching years for boomers was 7.5%, going from a low of 5.9% in 1979 to a high of 9.7% in 1982.
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Pictured: Students at the University of Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1980s.
While older members of Generation X hit the job market during the recession years of the early 1990s, the key job-searching years for Gen Xers came during the latter half of the decade and the early 2000s — around the time of the dot-com bubble. The average unemployment rate during the key post-college years for Generation X — 1994-2003 — was just 5.1%, with a high of 6.1% in 1994 and a low of 4% in 2000.
Pictured: GeoCities employees pose for a picture in 1999.
Millennials love to complain about how they had to face the worst job market out of college compared to any generation in recent memory. Overall, the average unemployment rate from 2010-2019 was 6.2% — but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The job market for millennial job seekers has been a reverse “A Tale of Two Cities”: It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. The highest unemployment rate was 9.6% in 2010, whereas the lowest is last year’s 3.6%.
The outlook for Generation Z could be fraught with difficulty. Climate change presents the possibility that Gen Zers will face an economy in the middle of a difficult transition away from fossil fuels. And, the professions that remain could be rendered obsolete by artificial intelligence and robotics before this generation can finish their college education.
While trying to predict the timing of economic cycles is usually a fool’s errand, it’s hard not to notice that the long, roaring recovery America is still enjoying has to come to an end at some point. If the economy is due for a recession in the next few years, that could seriously damage the job prospects of many freshly graduated members of Gen Z beginning to look for work in 2026.
But, this is all speculative, and it’s entirely possible that all of these factors might end up breaking positively for Gen Z.
The Verdict: OK Boomer, You Had a Really Tough Time Finding Work
A good portion of Generation X was able to graduate college and enter one of the best job markets in American history as the earliest stages of the digital age fueled by rapid growth in the tech sector. And, although millennials faced difficulties with job hunting immediately after the housing crash, they also got to benefit from the lengthy recovery that followed.
No, sorry millennials, but it appears as though it’s your boomer parents who had the toughest slog of it. As bad as the Great Recession was, the extended issues with inflation, energy and stagnate growth in the 1970s and early 1980s created a tougher job market than that of the others. But then, Gen Z still has a chance to surpass that.
The Housing Market
Purchasing a home is a milestone in any person’s life. But the quality of the market when you’re house hunting — not to mention the growth (or lack thereof) in home values following a purchase — can make an enormous difference in how homebuying plays out for each generation. Although the actual age at which people purchase homes can differ widely, between 30 and 40 is often the period when a person’s earning power — and, in some cases, a growing family — help make for the perfect storm to acquire their first home.
As such, the study will look at the 10-year period that would cover ages 30 to 40 for a person born at the midpoint of each generation.
The key homebuying years for baby boomers were from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and represented a pretty good time to be in the market. In 1985, the median sale price for a home in the U.S. was just $84,275, or the equivalent of roughly $200,000 today. Buying a home would have proven to be a sound investment as prices rose steadily, gaining around 60% from the start of the homebuying years for boomers to the finish.
Pictured: A house in a Los Angeles neighborhood in 1985.
If you’re a Gen Xer, your opinion on the housing market likely hinges on how late in life you waited to buy a house. It paid to procrastinate — those who bought during the early years caught the peak of the market before the housing crash — i.e., probably one of the single worst times to buy your first home in American history — but those who waited until after 2008 could take advantage of a buyer’s market and low-interest rates.
On the whole, though, Generation X had a median sale price of $186,025 in 2002 when they first started looking, and then $224,900 after 10 years. Adjusting for inflation, that’s just under $270,000 for 2002 and just over $265,000 for the post-housing crisis price in 2011.
The 10-year period for millennials started in 2018 and, well, it’s a pricey one. Clearly, the housing market has bounced back as far as home prices are concerned. The median sales price at the start of 2017 was just $313,100, or the equivalent today of just over $332,000. But where you live plays an enormous role. While a home in Michigan or Ohio likely won’t cost you much more than $150,000, you would be truly lucky to find something for under $1 million in San Jose or Atherton, California.
Either way, it’s still too early in the 10-year period to know for sure how it will all play out. One thing’s for sure, though. The housing crash that destroyed the economy just in time for this crew to be looking for their first job out of college ended in time for the market to recover and make it pretty expensive to buy their first home. So, lucky them.
For the time being, the housing situation is pretty great for much of Generation Z. Free rent and meals while living with their parents is hard to knock. However, what things will look like in 2034 — when Gen Zers are in their early 30s and, knock on wood, preparing to become homeowners — is an entirely different question.
If the current supply crunch in major American cities keeps getting worse, a decent portion of the generation might be facing a lifetime as renters. However, if an adequate amount of housing is built over the next decade, Generation Z might be house hunting just in time for some relief in home prices.
For the time being, though, trying to anticipate what the housing market will look like 15 years into the future just isn’t going to produce meaningful results.
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The Verdict: Millennials Might Have To Wait a Millennium To Own a Home
Gen Xers and millennials are both in a pretty similar boat, with median sales prices sitting close to the $300,000 mark after adjusting for inflation. And while those Gen Xers who bought prior to 2008 are clearly getting the worst of it, those who bought right after would be a counterweight. Meanwhile, while another housing crisis or boom is potentially on the horizon, millennials are still going to have to plan on shelling out about 10% more than their immediate predecessors.
But who knows? In another 15 years, maybe things will be even worse.
The Case for the Boomers Having It Worst
So, when it comes to just how hard boomers really had it, they don’t have a great argument when it comes to either college or housing. On a very basic level, they would have ended up paying much, much less for either college or their first home — even after adjusting for inflation. Those can be major factors in just how difficult a person’s financial life can be, setting you up for success in a big way.
However, boomers do have plenty of reason to gripe when it comes to the economy. Those years in the 1970s and early 1980s — with inflation running rampant and the energy crisis hampering growth — ultimately had higher unemployment at their peak than the Great Recession, and the high unemployment rate extended for longer.
The Case for Gen X Having It Worst
You could argue that Generation X had it better than any other generation. Sure, tuition costs were very high — particularly when compared to boomers — but they kept rising and millennials had it even worse. And as for the job market, there’s really not a lot to complain about. The booming 1990s meant that their prospects for finding a job were significantly better than they were for boomers or millennials.
The case for having it worse seems to come down to which subset of Gen Xers you’re referring to: the ones who bought their first home before the market crashed, or the ones who bought their first home after it crashed. Before, and they likely overpaid and then saw virtually zero growth in value for the better part of a decade. After, and they could have capitalized on low prices, low interest rates and a hungry mortgage market.
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The Case for Millennials Having It Worst
This one isn’t so hard. College costs were astronomical, their first job market fell right in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression and the cost of their first home remained at least a third higher than that of their parents, even after adjusting for inflation.
All told, millennials have had to endure some pretty lousy timing in terms of the economy. But hey, they did, mostly, manage to get through high school prior to the existence of social media, so that’s something.
The Case for Gen Z Having It Worst
This one would be incomplete, at best, but if you’re willing to project rising costs for higher education and housing into the future, there’s every reason to think Gen Z might ultimately have enough trouble going to college, finding a job and buying a home to make even the most jaded millennial flinch.
But, doomsday predictions aren’t the only way to go. Perhaps the fight against climate change will prove a unifying factor that will energize the economy, or new public policies will mitigate the costs of college and help improve the stock of affordable housing. Only time will tell.
And the Winner (Read: Loser) Is…
Many factors play into individual experiences across the different generations, but if you try to isolate specific economic factors when they would have mattered most, there seems to be a clear loser: millennials.
Only Gen Z will likely pay more for college, only the boomers had to sift through a more dismal job market and only the unlucky half of Gen X had a worse time with housing. Those three second-place finishes add up to one first-place finish overall.
Of course, much of the story is yet to be told for millennials and Gen Zers — not to mention the looming question of whether Social Security and Medicare can survive the coming crush of retiring baby boomers — so this picture might look very different in 10 or 20 years. But, for the time being, congratulations, er, condolences to the millennials. You really do have it the worst.
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Methodology: The parameters for each generation were determined using information from Merriam-Webster and Pew Research Center. The peak job-searching years were set between ages 22 to 32, and the peak house-hunting years were set between ages 30 to 40.