Talk About ‘Old Money': Old Folks Got Richer, Young People Much Poorer Over the Years

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We’ve all heard of how the rich have gotten richer over the past several decades—the “great divergence,” as it’s been called, in which a small portion of the population has garnered an increasingly outsized percentage of net worth and income. (The 1%, as the ultra-rich are known, also own many of the world’s most lavish homes.) Age usually doesn’t usually enter the inequality discussion, but perhaps it should.

Typically, the discussion pits the powerful versus the powerless, the rich versus the poor, or the ultra-rich versus everybody else. How about the old versus the young?

A Pew Research Center study notes that old people nowadays are substantially wealthier than their elderly counterparts from 25 years ago. Today’s young adults, by contrast, are substantially poorer than young people a quarter-century ago.

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Using government data, the study notes that the median net worth for individuals ages 65 and up stood at $170,494 in 2009, compared to $120,457 in 1984 (all figures are in 2010 dollars to account for inflation). The median net worth for adults younger than 35, on the other hand, was a pathetic $3,662 in 2009, compared to $11,521 in 1984. Many adults in what are considered prime earning years also fared better a quarter-century ago: The net worth of households ages 35 to 44 dropped 44% from 1984 ($71,118) to 2009 ($39,601).

Older folks have always been better off than young people, but lately, older people are much, much richer by comparison. In 1984, the “age-based wealth gap,” as Pew researchers call it, which compares net worth of the over-65s with the under-35s, was 10:1. By 2009, the gap was 47:1.

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What happened? Pew researchers point to a number of factors, including the sharp rise in student loan debt and the particularly awful state of the job market for young people—both of which have lowered net worth among Americans in the 20s and 30s, and will continue to do so for years.

Older Americans, by contrast, are not only worth more, but they’re more likely to still be working—perhaps out of fears related to higher retirement costs, partially related to longer life expectancy. In 1984, a historic low 10% of Americans ages 65 and up were working; 16% of Americans 65 and up were employed in 2009. As some have noted, what we have is a scenario in which grandparents are basically taking (or keeping) jobs from their grandkids, and the net worth disparity among the ages shows the results. At least these grandchildren are being helped out by their relatives: More and more young adults are living with their parents and grandparents in recent years.

Net worth is determined by subtracting debts from assets, and young people have far more debt in recent years than they did a quarter-century ago. This goes for college loan debt and what’s owed on home mortgages; home equity represented a much greater portion of wealth for the under-35 set in 1984 (46%) than it did in 2009 (31%).

(MORE: Scariest Student Loan Debt Numbers Ever: $100 Billion, $1 Trillion)

Given the age-based wealth disparity, perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement will spread to also Occupy the Old Age Home.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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