FACT CHECK: Are Only Half Of 30-Year-Olds Doing Better Than Their Parents At The Same Age?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Montana Governor Steve Bullock said that “only about half of 30-year-olds today are doing better than their parents were” at the same age.

Verdict: True

A highly-cited working paper found that about half of all 30-year-olds have higher incomes than their parents did at age 30. Other studies found a somewhat higher percentage of adult children out-earning their parents, but they used a much smaller data set and analyzed an older group of adult children.

Fact Check:

Bullock made the statement on CNN’s “State of the Union” Aug. 19 while discussing the economy under President Donald Trump.

“What you see overall is that, in many ways, our economy is broken. Only about half of 30-year-olds today are doing better than their parents were at age 30,” the Democratic governor said. “Go back 50 years ago, that was 90 percent of folks. So, yes, while the economy’s booming, and it’s sort of continued after President Obama, there’s a lot more of that because a lot of folks just aren’t getting ahead in this economy.”

When asked for a source to his claim, Bullock’s office referenced a December 2016 working paper from economists and sociologists at Stanford, Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley that sought to measure economic opportunity by analyzing income mobility across generations since 1940. The idea that children can have a higher standard of living than their parents is a defining feature of the “American Dream,” the study said.

The academics analyzed IRS records and Census data and found that only about half of 30-year-olds born in 1984, who turned 30 in 2014, had higher incomes than people their parents’ age did at age 30. About 90 percent of people born in 1940, who were 30 years old about 50 years ago in 1970, made more than their parents did at the same age.

Some of the change in the proportion of children out-earning their parents has to do with economic growth slowing down after World War II. For people born in the 1960s and early 1970, the percentage of 30-year-olds earning more than their parents hovered around 60 percent.

Robert Manduca, one of the authors of the study and a PhD student in sociology and social policy at Harvard University, said that slower economic growth is not the primary reason for the decline in upward mobility, though. “About 70 percent of the decline is instead attributable to rising income inequality,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email.

Other studies that have examined income mobility across generations have found that a higher proportion of young people out-earn their parents.

A Pew Charitable Trusts study published in 2012 evaluated income mobility by examining a much smaller data set, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), which has followed families since 1968. In an analysis of 2,736 children who were tracked into adulthood, Pew found that 84 percent of adult children had higher mean family incomes from 2000 to 2008 at an average age of 45 than their parents did between 1967 and 1971 at an average age of 41.

The change in personal income, rather than family income, was slightly lower – 59 percent of adult sons made more than their fathers did. It found that half of adult children exceeded their parents’ overall family wealth.

The Urban Institute also analyzed PSID data in a July 2016 income mobility report. It found that about 63 percent of adult children in their 30s from 1993 to 2009 had higher inflation-adjusted incomes than when their parents were in their 30s.

One of the study’s authors said that the Stanford findings are credible and more applicable to young people born after 1980, however.

“I’d say they are all credible and the differences are due to different data sources and cohorts studied,” Greg Acs, an author of the Urban Institute study, told TheDCNF in an email. He noted that the study from the Stanford researchers “is the only one of the three studies that actually has a large enough sample of kids born in the 1980s to make the parents age 30 to kids at age 30 comparison for that generation,” and that it shows pretty similar results to the Urban Institute study for slightly older generations.

The authors of the Stanford study also stand by the accuracy of their research, in part because their sample is larger and more representative of the entire U.S. population. “Our findings are fairly well established at this point,” Manduca said. “They’ve been peer reviewed and cited by more than 150 academic papers in the past two years.”

Another study provided a grim picture of millennials’ financial health compared to past generations, though it did not determine what proportion of young people are making more than the older generation.

Advocacy group Young Invincibles found that 25-to-34-year-old millennials in 2013 earned about 20 percent less than the same age group of baby boomers in 1989. The January 2017 report derived its figures from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

“Boomers earned higher incomes, amassed greater assets, were more likely to own homes, and had greater net wealth when they were young adults than today’s young people,” the report said.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter