The deeper explanation might be structural. Many young adults, particularly those who represent their families’ first college graduates, are earning more than their parents. But young adults without a college degree have been run roughshod by technological changes, globalization, and slow wage growth that continues to this very week.
It’s also worth pointing out that the United States has absorbed millions of immigrants over the past 30 years, often from poorer Latin and South American countries. (The Census notes that the share of ethnic minorities has doubled over the last 33 years.) It’s possible that, even as these families have raised their own living standards by moving to the U.S. and contributed to a growth economy, their below-average wages, when lumped into the aggregate, make it look like native-born families’ wage growth is worse than it really is.
Although these figures paint a lugubrious picture of young workers today, it’s nonetheless true that Boston, San Jose, Washington, San Francisco, and New York’s metro areas have all seen double-digit real income growth since 1980. The coasts (and, more recently, energy-rich states like Texas and South Dakota) have largely thrived. Indeed, the United States is a plural noun, and the country’s health is most accurately captured as a mosaic rather than a monolith. An unequal decade punctuated by an unequal recovery has left parts of the country better off in just about every way, while the vast majority of states are home to a Millennial generation that is quite clearly falling behind the pace of its parents.