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Are You Better Off Than Your Parents?

It’s hard to compare myself with my parents. When they were my age — I’ll be thirty-five years old less than a month from now — they had two children, and the four of us were living in an apartment in upstate New York. I’m not married and I have no children. My father studied to be an environmental engineer, and I studied to be a music teacher. My situation is significantly different and probably shouldn’t be compared without making these points. When you compare yourself with your parents, you might have similar variables that make the comparison uneven.

Most middle class Americans are not better off than their parents today. When you look at average income, unless you’re in the top sliver of wealth, it has stayed roughly stagnant for at least a generation. The bottom 90% of income earners, those with incomes under $380,000 a year, have not seen their real purchasing power increase. Those in the top 1%, on the other hand, have seen their income increase by 33%, after accounting for inflation, in the past 20 years.

Even if incomes haven’t changed for middle class, the standard of living certainly has. I, and much of the middle class, can watch movies in high definition on a big screen in living rooms, while my parents had a 13-inch television. Today’s middle class dines out in restaurants frequently, while the middle class of the previous generation focused much more on cooking in the home. The middle class a generation ago didn’t place the stigma on renting an apartment rather than buying a house that today’s generation does, and it’s been normal for middle class individuals and families to own houses soon after starting a career or a family.

Another income to note is the trend over the past generation is the widening income gap between college-educated individuals and those only with high-school diplomas. The increase in education and holding different types of jobs than your parents might help in creating a feeling that you are better off.

In some cases, this feeling is misleading; a generation ago, workers entering the workforce may have had less lucrative jobs, but they had much less debt. Today’s graduates are tied to their student loan payments and credit card debt. Even for those with much better jobs than their parents, there was a sacrifice to get to that point.

Do you feel better off than your parents?

CNN Money, New York Times

Published or updated February 16, 2011.

About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of shizennougyou. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 tigernicole86

This article rings true. My parents didn’t have the debt that I did(or at least not near as much as when i graduated college). My father had to take out only about $2000 in student loans while my mom graduated debt free. I had to take out over 10x what my dad did to get through college and I had credit card debt with that. My parents have a tendency to compare where I’m at now in life to where they were at 24 and wonder why I haven’t “settled down” with my long-term boyfriend who also has a huge amount of debt from student loans. We just feel like there’s no way we can buy a house and start a family with that debt hanging around our necks.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I’m much better off, if only because I can earn money from home using only a computer. The very idea would have been outrageous when my parents were young. I don’t think income is an adequate measure at all.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

I’m better off because I go beyond the 9-5 income. I have three income streams. Our parents did not have
the opportunities that we have now…Online companies, investments, etc

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avatar 4 tbork84

There are many things that we take for granted today and consider necessary that would have been considered luxuries just a few decades ago. You do bring up a very good point about debt and how we are much more willing to incur and become shackled to it. I guess we could blame this on being one more generation removed from the Great Depression.

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avatar 5 cubiclegeoff

I’d say worse off. In some cases there is more opportunity, but for the vast majority, there isn’t. Also, My parents could live off one salary, own a house and two cars, and my dad wasn’t make huge amounts, but about the median at the time, probably a little less. together with my wife, we make more than the median and although we can own a house, it’s much smaller, and we couldn’t afford the house and cars and children with just one income, and we both have Master degrees. I think this difference is biggest in the larger cities and on the coasts.

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avatar 6 stephsk8r

I think we’re not as well off as my parents, but probably better off than my wife’s parents were at this point in life. Both of us have full-time jobs, whereas both of our mothers did not work outside the home from when they had kids until we were in college. We also worry about money more than our parents seemed to.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

Definitely not as well off. Many of our parents had pensions and fully paid for health insurance where we now have to fund our own retirement (often with little or no help from our employer) and pay a big chunk of health care costs. The cost of educating our children has skyrocketed so anybody saving for their children has a much higher cost to incur than our parents did.

Overall, this is very (sadly) true.

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avatar 8 4hendricks

I feel in some ways I am better off than my parents, I live in an area that is much more diverse – however it is also has a hcol. My parents retired at 55 with no mortgage, and wealthy 401(k) – no debt and kids through college. I am not sure how that will work for us.

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avatar 9 Sarah

I feel like in general people from this generation have a lot more costs to deal with our parents did. Getting an education costs a huge amount and is required for far more jobs than it had been in the past. Pensions are unheard of for many people our age. We have more ‘required’ services than our parents did at our age — things like internet access. I think people in our generation have a lot more of a challenging time financially than our parents did.

That being said, I think *I’m* better off than my parents. They made some poor choices early on (credit cards, getting a house that’s expensive to heat/maintain) which have left them in a less than optimal situation. I was able to be smarter getting started financially than they were because I was able to look at some of the mistakes they made and avoid them.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Isn’t it interesting that today’s younger generation is spending a ton on education to meet the expectations of their parents generation? It is their parents’ generation that will be hiring them, after all.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I don’t think I am better off today than my parents were at my age. At that time, they had a booming business, huge house, bought us tons of presents, etc.

However, eventually that business failed, they got divorced, the house got foreclosed on, and everything else went to heck in a hand-basket. The result is that I am much better off today then either of my parents are today. I long ago paid off my student loan debt. My siblings are still in debt but are making progress – it won’t hinder them forever. I think we will all mange to lead reasonably comfortable retirements, even though we’ll have to finance them ourselves.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

So in summary, I think that there are lots of new challenges today, but also new opportunities. And a lot of things that used to be more challenging are no longer.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

Better off is relative! I am better educated, I made more money, and I am definitely happier. After saying that, nothing is comparable. Rather than looking back, my children (adults) are happy in their careers, successful and will probably earn more than me. That is a good thing.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

Relative comparison is difficult, but although I have more savings, larger pensions, and a brighter outlook than they had when they retired it was their influence that assured that. That is to say; they lived within their means, borrowing only for home and cars and saved from almost each and every paycheck. That example stuck and now my retirement years are working out pretty darn well. From a net worth standpoint I’m much better off but then retirement in 2008 is a lot different than retirement in 1976 so the relative part gets confusing.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Less well off. We have more material possessions than my parents did, but my dad had full retirement, and could afford to send me to private college without loans. We had money for week or two week vacations every year when I was a kid.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

I’m most definitely better off than my parents, partly as a result of circumstance and partly as a result of choice. Neither of them has a college education, and they live in a state where employment opportunities are limited and salaries are low (Michigan). Their ‘must have’ expenses are also quite low – particularly housing and taxes – but they consistently make poor choices in regards to everything else. They have almost no retirement savings, gobs of debt, and make classic ‘poor people’ mistakes, like buying goods that are inexpensive and of poor quality, rather than investing in higher quality that will stand the test of time. For the record, I’m talking about my father and step-mom here, but it’s important to point out that my bio-mom and dad became parents quite young, which is most definitely a factor in my dad and step-mom’s financial situation now.

I on the other hand went to college (although I am massively in debt to the feds as a result), earn a good salary, earning more than either of my parents ever will, am married with no kids, have no consumer debt, an save 10% of my income for retirement.

So yeah, I’m much better off.

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avatar 17 Donna Freedman

Yes and no. My parents were able to buy a home cheaply (from my grandparents) and there was a lot less to “need” back then. No one agonized over cable choices, Internet access, game systems or whether their kids should have cell phones because these things didn’t exist.
There was still peer pressure but everyone we knew was broke, too. These days even broke people have access to credit and have all the trappings of the high life at the cost of punishingly high consumer debt.
On the other hand…I am able to work from home or wherever I want to be thanks to the Internet and my laptop. My life is a lot freer than theirs ever was. Nothing is “free,” of course; I pay my own health insurance (ouch) and save for my own retirement (although I have some funds from 18 years of a full-time job). But I enjoy myself more than they ever did, I think. It’s more acceptable for me to have quit a full-time job and take out on my own than it would have been for them to do such a thing.
Also, I only had ONE kid. They had four. Even with hand-me-downs and a big garden, it cost them a lot of their salaries to bring us up.

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avatar 18 Anonymous

In some ways I think I’m better off than my parents and some ways not so much. For instance, I had the opportunity to go to college and graduate (my dad didn’t) but my dad has a lot more job security than I do at my age. My mom traveled a lot more after college than I did, but she had to deal with more issues with women in the workplace than I ever had.

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avatar 19 20andengaged

I don’t feel better off than my parents but I definitely feel like I got a head start, and therefore have an advantage to EVENTUALLY be better off. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I’m hoping we can at least match up with them one day.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

We live such different lives, that it is very hard to compare. By this age, 30, my parents had two kids, 10 and 12 years old. They also had a massive loan on a 36-acre parcel of land, at 80’s interest rates, so cash was a little tighter then. I’m living unmarried with my boyfriend, with no children, and coming out of this recession, we have no savings either. My dad was the one with the large stable income, and my mom worked once we were in school, doing mostly service jobs that paid poorly. I’m curently the one with the stable but moderate income, and my boyfriend has been mostly working security or temp jobs part-time that pay poorly.

In some ways we are a mirror-image, in other ways, we are not even near as well off as they were.

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avatar 21 skylog

i would say i am better off. i think the biggest reason is, amongst other things, the understanding and desire to set myself up early on in life. of course, my parents had me so early on in their lives, that certainly played a role.

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avatar 22 Anonymous

I’m doing better than my parents were at my age. My income is higher (relative to medians) and our net worth is higher than theirs was. Plus during the 80’s my dad was unemployed frequently due to the recessions and lack of work in construction where we lived.

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avatar 23 Cejay

I am better off than my parents. If only because they had seven kids and worked hard to give me the opportunities I had. I do own a home and no debt. My parents rented house till they died. But still I think they had a measure of contentment that I do not have and they believed that they could make anything of their lives. I lack that belief.

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avatar 24 Anonymous

Even the not so well off have much more than MOST other people in the world.
Yes, we have to keep working to make things better, but we also have to be thankful
for the advantages we HAVE. “Are you better off than your parents?” is not really
as meaningful a question as it used to be…..
(In one way, we are all less well off, and that is the cost of health care/insurance. We have
talented doctors and great medical technology, but too many greedy people between
health care provider and patient.)

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avatar 25 TakeitEZ

I think we are better off due to the increased opportunities and overall better education.

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avatar 26 Anonymous

My parents didn’t go to college. But that means they didn’t have a student loan payment that amounts to a car loan payment every. single. month for 13 years with no end in sight…. am I better off? Job opportunities are better. Debt headache is worse!

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avatar 27 shellye

It’s hard to say…my parents owned their own business, and by the time my mom was 30, she had a 12 yr old and a 10 yr old, with free daycare in the form of my grandparents who looked after us while they worked. I went to college and graduated without any student loan debt because my parents paid my tuition, which was very reasonable at a state institution (for the time).

But I lived a very different life than my parents; I worked a good job until my firstborn came along then I became a stay-at-home mom. By the time I was 30, I had a 4 yr old, a 2 yr old and one on the way. We were able to be a one-income family because we moved to a state where COL was much much less than where we’d previously lived. Kids are older now and I’ve re-entered the workforce, but I’m not sure I’ll ever make as much as my parents did. I have retirement savings and a home, but I think those years out of the workforce will hinder me from making the kind of money my parents made. However, my kids are happy, well-adjusted and that is worth a lot.

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avatar 28 gotr31

In some ways better and in some ways not. I have alot of “things” that were not even available to my parents. I have alot of opportunities they did not. But I somewhat envy a simpler lifestyle and choices that they had. I do not have an overly materialistic life but when compared to my parents at this age, our lifestlye would seem very plush.

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avatar 29 rewards

Better off because my parents didn’t have access to the internet, side-air bags, cheap cross-country flights, large flat screen TVs, farmers markets, MRIs, third-generation anti-histamines, etc. etc. etc.

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avatar 30 Anonymous

It’s a mixed bag, My lifestyle is not as extravagant – but I have more cash! :)

I think a lot of that is just a different attitude about money. My parents started out poor, and had to aspire to get money for most of their lives. A good part of their self worth came from and still does come from, materialistic benchmarks and having nice things.

For me, I value accumulating money and having the freedom and security that goes with a nice nest egg, rather than spending it, on a bigger house or fancier car.


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avatar 31 Anonymous

We are better off than our parents were at this same age, but when my dad was in his 50’s, his earnings went up even more, so we need to keep saving and earning more if we want to still be better off than they were in their 50’s. The challenge with generation X and later is the lack of saving for retirement. Most of our parents had pensions or other retirement funding.

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avatar 32 Ceecee

Definitely not better off.

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avatar 33 eric

It actually didn’t take very long for me to pass my parents. Both of my parents didn’t go to college but they worked hard and many jobs to support the family.

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avatar 34 Anonymous

I’m definitely better off financially than my parents were. I feel like they were pretty good at saving for the short-term, but not so much for the long-term. I’ve also positioned myself to make more money by obtaining a college education as well as my CPA certification. Even if I hadn’t done these things, I think my standard of living would’ve been just as high as that of my parents due to advances in technology and my knowledge of how to live frugally. The latter really can take you a long way.

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avatar 35 Anonymous

Not sure because they lived in the US while I live in Mexico.

When they were 24, they were newlyweds with no kids. They lived in an apartment above a garage, and both were paying for grad school.

I’m 24, a newly wed with no kids, and a recent college grad. I live in a small 2 bedroom house in a nice neighborhood in Cancun, but I’m not going to grad school. We’re living on 1 income while my husband is still an undergrad.

I’d say circumstances are different, but I’m probably a bit better off than my parents were at my age.

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avatar 36 Anonymous

It’s interesting that bigger TVs, eating out more, and owning a house were how to define “better off.”

I was given no information at all about my parents’ financial situation when I was a kid. I know we lived in a nice house, and I know they fought about money constantly, and that’s all I know. I have no idea what their debt load was like. I have no idea how much my dad made. My mom was a SAHM. I know our house was full of stuff (mom liked shopping; hence, arguments) and at this point, she’s taken over all three bedrooms that my siblings and I used to occupy. But I don’t think that makes them well-off. It just means they have a lot of crap.

We are doing OK. No debt outside of mortgage and student loan. Two fairly stable incomes. Even so, with a little one now on the way, we’re looking at finances and aren’t going to be able to do it on one salary — neither of us makes enough money. I’ve just started exploring other income streams, but these things take time…

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avatar 37 Anonymous

right now I am about parallel with my dad but thats because he hasnt retired yet.

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