My Generation

Father and son in front of classic car ca. 1960's.

“A generation is a group of people who are ‘programmed’ at the same time in history.” – Arleen Arnsparger,

The transition to adulthood in the 20th century followed a predictable path: Education, job, marriage, homeownership, children. But cultural shifts in recent decades have complicated this picture. Today’s emerging adults are less likely to marry, start a family or take on a mortgage in the same order or at the same time as their forebears. The question for financial educators is: What’s in a generation? And more importantly: Why does it matter?

What’s in a Generational Label?

The borders between generations are blurry. There is no agreed-upon definition of exactly when each generation begins and ends. In addition to your birth year, your generation is shaped by what happens in your lifetime. But events don’t happen to just one age group. The Silent Generation was too young to work during the Great Depression, but they certainly felt its effects. The youngest Millennials didn’t comprehend 9/11 when it happened, but their world undeniably was altered by what transpired that day.

Generations are defined by:
Age: The age(s) at which life events and transitions take place
Cohort: Who also was born in your generation
Period: What happens within your lifetime

what's in a generation

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What Does Your Generation Mean For…

Marriage and Family

Wedding party ca. 1950's.At the turn of the 20th century, men and women typically married in their mid-twenties. During the 1940s and 50s, the marriage age dropped significantly, and has been rising ever since. Today’s emerging adult once again is delaying marriage. Research shows that having noncollateralized debt such as student loans and consumer debt in early adulthood is a potential cause for this delay.

  • Student loans lower the likelihood that an individual will transition to marriage for both men and women. Student loans also strongly decrease the likelihood that an individual will become a parent. This finding holds for all racial and ethnic groups.
  • Among individuals who do marry, marriage brings more debt. A married person has three times more debt than a single person of the same age. This primarily is because married couples are much more likely to have a home mortgage, more car debt and higher levels of consumer debt.


Despite the headlines, Millennials’ rate of homeownership is not all that different from prior generations. According to U.S. Census data, the incidence of homeownership among Americans 35 years old and younger has been fairly consistent since 1940. However, the Great Recession and housing collapse hit hard. Fifty percent of Millennial mortgage holders were underwater on their mortgages in 2009. And Generation X was hit even harder.

  • In the 2000s, easy access to credit and a booming housing market combined to give Millennials a historically high homeownership rate. However, by 2010 Millennials were less likely than their counterparts in prior generations to own a home.
  • The housing bubble affected Generation X more than any other cohort. A smaller cohort than Boomers or Millennials, Gen X also was at prime homebuying age in 2008. When the bubble burst, Gen-Xers were more likely to be in an overpriced home they couldn’t afford, and therefore more susceptible to foreclosure.

Credit and Debt

Newly married couple ca. 2014.“The transition to adulthood in America is a transition to debt,” says Rachel Dwyer, Ph.D., co-lead investigator on NEFE-funded research at The Ohio State University that examined how debt is impacting financial behavior and life transitions among young Americans. Not surprisingly, young adults tend to have more noncollateralized debt such as consumer debt and student loans, while older adults tend to have more collateralized debt such as mortgages and auto loans.

  • All cohorts became more skeptical of credit following the Great Recession. Between 1992 and 2010, fewer than 60 percent of Gen-Xers and Millennials had credit cards. However, those who did have consumer debt had more of it and held it longer compared to earlier generations.
  • Although Millennials accumulated debt at about the same rate as Gen-Xers — with total debt growing at about $2,000 a year — Millennials were deeper in debt at a younger age. Gen-Xers had an average debt of about $60,000 by their late 20s; Millennials reached the same level of debt by their mid-20s. One potential factor is the rising cost of higher education.
  • Following World War II, the GI Bill dramatically increased the number of people attending college, and changed how many students funded their higher education. In the 1960s the most common form of college aid was federal grants. By the 2000s, loans had become the most common form of aid, followed by federal and institutional grants.


Millennials across all income levels reported financial strain and trouble making ends meet during the Great Recession — most likely because it hit many of them at the key transition from college to career. Millennials who got financial advice from their parents reported less financial strain than peers who received no advice — and even than peers who received advice from financial professionals.

  • Having credit card debt is strongly associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety, especially in low-income households.
  • Before the Great Recession, carrying a mortgage lowered anxiety among white homeowners. The same homeowners experienced increased anxiety over their mortgages post-Recession. Black and Latino homeowners did not see reduced anxiety effects from carrying a mortgage either before or after the Recession.
  • Students who drop out of college carrying student loan debt report higher incidences of financial problems and depression than those who graduate with or without loans, and those who drop out but have no loans.

Why Do Generational Differences Matter?

Generational differences can provide insight into a learner’s frame of reference, beyond what might be indicated by his age, gender, marital status, education or employment. Does a Millennial shy away from the stock market because she is too young to have investable assets — or because she was spooked by the Great Recession? An astute financial educator will craft the approach accordingly.

Young family in front yard of home ca. 1950's.Silents and Boomers were advised during the high-inflation 1970s and 1980s to pay bills as close to the due date as possible because the erosion of monetary value made those dollars “cheaper.” Consumers today are advised to get more money in each paycheck rather than “give the government an interest-free loan” by getting a larger tax refund. Both rules of thumb make little sense in a .01 percent interest rate environment, and research shows that more people make better decisions with the lump-sum refund than with a few extra dollars each pay period. And yet these practices linger in the financial habits of four generations.

“My mother, a child of the Great Depression, is extremely conservative with her money, and by that I mean FDIC-insured-savings-and-CDs conservative,” says Patricia Seaman, AFC®, a senior director at NEFE. “We had to fire her financial advisors because they scoffed at her preference for certificates of deposit and belittled their puny returns. They were Gen-Xers who did not respect the profound effect the Depression had on my mother’s need for guaranteed financial safety.”

“Be aware, however, that generational differences are just one contributor to financial beliefs, easily overshadowed by more powerful influencers such as family values and specific financial experiences that shape people’s attitudes,” says Billy Hensley, NEFE’s director of education.

“Understanding a generation does not automatically make you understand a particular client or learner,” says Seaman. “But not understanding can make you appear less credible, less trustworthy and less effective.”


  • Paul Golden

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