Earnings have declined despite the fact that today's young people are better educated than 40 years ago. Thirty-seven percent of young people had a bachelor's degree last year, compared to 22.8 percent in 1975.
In part, experts say, the decline in average incomes results from new impediments to financial success that confront millennials, but that older Americans did not have to overcome. A more unequal economy presents fewer opportunities for younger workers. Young people today must compete with a well educated labor force, while young people in the past often had an advantage over older workers who were less qualified.
In another sense, the decline represents progress, because it is partly a result of striking gains among young women. Young women have joined the workforce in high numbers, but because they still earn less than young men, their entrance has driven down the average for young workers in general. In 1975, just under half of women aged 25 to 34 were working, and only 18.4 percent had at least a bachelor's degree. In 2016, about 70 percent of women between those ages were employed, and 40 percent had at least a bachelor's degree.
The typical income for a young woman in the labor force increased 28.5 percent since 1975, from $23,000 to $29,000 in 2015 dollars.
Meanwhile, young men's earnings have declined. For a man in the labor force aged 25 to 34, the typical income declined from $46,000 in 1975 to $40,000 last year.
Young men are also more educated — 34 percent now have a bachelor's degree, compared to 27.4 percent of their counterparts 40 years ago. Last year, roughly 5 in 6 were working and two-thirds had full-time, year-round jobs, figures that have changed little since 1975.
“It’s hard to say that there’s one experience for young adults that’s capturing how they’re all doing,” said the Census's Jonathan Vespa, the author of the report.
The stagnant fortunes of young people comes amid broad overall gains for the American since 1975. Median personal income for all Americans has increased from about $23,000 in 1975 to $30,000 today in 2015 dollars. (Those figures include many retirees and students.)
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on those with full-time, year-round work confirms the negative trend for the young. Typical weekly earnings for workers aged 25 to 34 in this category have declined 4 percent between 1979 and last year after adjusting for inflation, according to Arloc Sherman, a researcher at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Gary Burtless, an economist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, suggested a few explanations for the disappointing data for young people. The level of education in the American labor force was rapidly increasing in 1975. While it was typical for older workers at that time not to have completed high school, a new generation — the baby boomers — had received what Americans now think of as a standard education, including a high-school diploma and increasingly a bachelor's degree.
As a result, young people could claim more of the fruits of the American economy then. “Compared to older workers, back then, they at least had a couple of very strong advantages,” Burtless said. “Those advantages are smaller for young adults today.”
At the same time, he said, inequality of income has increased in general in the American economy, meaning that poorer workers — many of whom are younger — have not enjoyed the same progress as more affluent workers, who tend to be older.
“It’s a big problem, even for people with college credentials,” he said. “Those less educated people have fared quite miserably.”