On the House: A generational logjam for economy and real estate

Posted: June 17, 2012

I went to my 40th college reunion a couple weeks back, and the impression I got from talking with my classmates is that even those who can retire aren't retiring.

One friend was an engineer with a radio network for 39 years until his bosses offered him a handsome severance package. He took it.

Golf every day? No way. He's spending the next few weeks on a freelance radio project, and he anticipates similar endeavors will likely define the rest of his life.

My friend and I, and the others in the Class of 1972, are baby boomers, the demographic that the economic future of the nation still seems to depend on, or so they'd like us to believe.

From what I heard and saw at the three-day reunion, some of us have been extraordinarily successful, especially those who came from wealthy families. But even some of them took a huge hit in the 2008 financial meltdown from which they are just recovering. Others, including my radio-engineer friend and I, have been very lucky, working in our chosen professions since graduation.

For most, however, a college education has not been a guarantee of financial or professional success.

Few of the now-62-year-olds with whom I graduated will be able to retire at 65 or 66, even if they want to.

Some started at high-paying jobs but were downsized or phased out, or their companies moved offshore after 15 or 20 years. Then they had to spend years reinventing themselves or settling for lower pay and fewer benefits.

That happened to one of my classmates twice, and I'm sure that others with whom I didn't have a chance to talk also had the experience.

Still others had lower-paying jobs in the fields of their choice, placing more value on what they had chosen to do than on money. They, too, had mortgages and kids to send to college, and there isn't much left for retirement.

The result seems to look like this: •Baby boomers in the numbers that retirement-community builders have been counting on won't be ready to retire for awhile. •Generation X, which is following us boomers, can't move up in the employment pecking order because we are holding on to jobs they need to make that happen. •The Millennials behind them can't get the jobs they need to pay back those backbreaking college loans because Gen Xers are unable to move up and the economy isn't creating the necessary employment opportunities.

I need to look at the data, but I think all this has contributed greatly to the failure of the housing market to pull itself out of the economic doldrums more rapidly.

Stephen Dunne, a Philadelphia lawyer who is well-versed on the extent of the student-loan-debt burden, has told me that his loans are just like a mortgage, and that he can't consider buying a house until they are paid.

Is this situation permanent? No one is certain, even though real estate has always followed cycles.

Glenn E. Crenlin, of the Runstad Center for Real Estate at the University of Washington, told a Realtors gathering in May that though it is worrying that the homeownership rate for those under age 35 is below that of older Americans, many of the Millennials are still in the early stages of household formation.

What's more, data he presented show that 900,000 Millennials own their homes, compared with 500,000 boomers at the same point in their lives.

Looking at my college class, the reason might have been that we were less willing to set down roots as quickly as the current generation.

Not all of us, but just enough to mess with the data.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or@alheavens at Twitter.

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