Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Making It on Their Own: The Baby Boom Meets Generation X

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

Making It on Their Own: The Baby Boom Meets Generation X

Article excerpt

In terms of various income and expenditure measures, young single adults in 1994-95, members of "Generation X," appear to be economically worse off than were their baby-boom counterparts in either 1972-73 or 1984-85

In a popular 1970s television series, Mary Tyler Moore portrayed Mary Richards, a young woman living alone in Minneapolis and working as an associate producer at a television news program. In some ways, the Richards character typified the successful young singles of the baby-boom generation. To illustrate, the opening theme song asked, "How will you make it on your own?" Richards would toss her hat into the air in a gesture indicating that she would indeed succeed. However, the theme song's question might get a very different answer from today's young singles. Structural changes in the economy may have altered the outlook for young single women and men, making the theme song's concluding lyric, "You're gonna make it after all," a less-likely outcome for contemporary young singles.

How do today's young singles--often called "Generation X'ers"--compare to their baby-boom counterparts who entered the labor market 10 or even 20 years ago? And do the figures look the way they do because of real, structural changes in the economy, or could it be that despite gains in employment, differences in wages or other economic measures persist among men and women, or whites and minorities? As labor force participation has increased among these groups, per capita income has declined, in real teens, even though some segments of the population currently earn more than did their counterparts in earlier years. Despite these other changes, relative to everyone else in the economy, are young singles today doing worse, holding their own, or perhaps even doing better than their counterparts from the previous generation?

To answer these questions, this article examines various measures of economic well-being for 18- to 29-year-old single persons in three periods: 1972-73 (Boomers I), 1984-85 (Boomers II), and 1994-95 (Generation X). Using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, it analyzes differences in incomes and spending patterns to see how, if at all, these measures have changed, and how today's young singles are indeed "making it on their own."

Understanding the data

The data in this study are taken from the Interview component of the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Designed primarily to collect data on major expenditures (such as automobiles and new homes) and incurring expenditures (such as interest payments and insurance premiums), the Interview survey collects about 95 percent of total expenditures. Detailed information about the demographic composition of each consumer unit also is collected, including factors such as family size, members' ages and occupations, and income (with some sources collected for each member and others collected from the family as a whole).(1)

To compare today's singles with those of previous years, three periods are examined 1972-73, 1984-85, and 1994-95. The choice in years stems partly from the availability of data. The most recent data available for this study are for 1994-95. The 1984-85 data were selected because they allow low for a comparison with individuals exactly 10 years earlier. Prior to 1980, the survey was only conducted about once every 10 years; hence, the 1972-73 survey results are the only data available for that decade.(2)

The sample includes all single-member consumer units, aged 18 to 29, who are financially on their own. Excluded are single-member consumer units who are currently enrolled in college or those who receive contributions from outside their consumer unit.(3) The data obtained from the remaining consumer units are then weighted to reflect the population. Following are the sample sizes for each year and the total number of persons represented as a result of weighting:

                          Number of
                           singles
            Sample       represented
  Year       size      (in thousands)

1972-73       705          2,565
1984-85     1,791          3,581
1994-95     1,098          2,779

About "Generation X"

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