Americans have a big bill to pay on their student loans. As of the first quarter of 2021, the total outstanding student loan debt is about $1.74 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. While that is a big number, it doesn’t provide any insight into how each generation is bearing the brunt. Although various student loan forgiveness proposals have been made, no significant relief has yet been passed.
The cost of college is rising much faster than inflation, but it isn’t necessarily the case that younger generations have more student debt, as we will find out. The reality is much more nuanced, with student loans affecting different generations in different ways. In fact, the second-largest year-over-year increase was in baby boomers, after only Generation Z. As most of Gen Z is still attending college, a large increase is to be expected, but other generations might continue to increase if they pay for their children’s education.
Generation Z (18-23)
- 2019 average student debt: $12,495
- 2020 average student debt: $17,338
- Year-over-year change: 39%
The youngest generation with student debt, Generation Z, has the lowest outstanding balances as of 2020. Given that this generation entirely includes the typical 18-22 age range that is attending undergrad, it makes sense that they have the least student debt. In 2019, they had just $12,495 in student debt, on average. Thus, it will be interesting to see how student debt shapes up for Gen Z, particularly as they graduate from college and take on the full amount of student debt they need to attend college.
- 2019 average student debt: $34,795
- 2020 average student debt: $38,877
- Year-over-year change: 12%
Millennials, those ages 24-39 in 2020, had $38,877 in student debt, on average. While their student debt increased at a much lower rate than Gen Z, it did continue to climb, despite the fact that many millennials are no longer in college. Millennials also have double the total amount of student debt that Gen Z has, which means their total balances still increased considerably. Indeed, millennials’ balances increased by just over $4,000 compared to just under $5,000 for Gen Z. That is despite the fact that Gen Z’s percentage change was more than triple that of millennials.
Generation X (40-55)
- 2019 average student debt: $39,981
- 2020 average student debt: $45,095
- Year-over-year change: 13%
Despite being among the highest median earners in the country, Gen X, too, saw its student loan debt continue to climb. Of course, that says more about student loans as a whole than it does about Gen X. After all, every age group has seen its student loans continue to climb. Still, Gen X had the second-highest dollar amount increase year-over-year at $5,114. Its percent change was 13%. Its average student debt total, $45,095, is the highest average for all age groups in 2020.
Baby Boomers (56-74)
- 2019 average student debt: $34,957
- 2020 average student debt: $40,512
- Year-over-year change: 16%
Baby boomers are an interesting case when it comes to outstanding student loans. Their outstanding student loans in 2019 were almost the same as that of millennials in 2019, despite the significant age gap. In 2020, baby boomers’ average student debt is almost $2,000 more than that of millennials at $40,512. They also had a higher percentage change at 16%, which is second only to the percentage change for Generation Z. These numbers are not very encouraging, especially as many baby boomers have already retired.
Silent Generation (75+)
- 2019 average student debt: $25,614
- 2020 average student debt: $28,052
- Year-over-year change: 10%
The silent generation, those ages 75 and up, had the second-least outstanding student debt in 2020, with $28,052. Gen Z is the only generation with less outstanding debt, although there is still a large gap between them. While the silent generation has less student debt than some of the younger generations, its debt still increased, albeit by a lower percentage. In fact, the silent generation had the lowest percent change of any generation at 10%. That had them going into 2020 with $2,438 more in student debt than in 2019, on average.
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Methodology: For this piece GOBankingRates used Experian’s most recent data on student loan debt by generation as published in February 2021. All data was collected on and up to date as of May 4, 2021.