Over the past few years, high unemployment, the housing market implosion and falling wages have driven many American families closer together -- both financially and literally. Parents are supporting their adult children, children are supporting parents, and generations are helping each other to weather the economic storms.
In some ways, that's heartwarming, but according to a recent study, the rising trend of inter-generational support has hit baby boomers particularly hard. They're caught between financially-strapped elderly parents who can no longer work, and adult children who can't find work.
In 2007, Ameriprise, a leading financial services company, conducted a cross-generational survey of economic perceptions: Money Across Generations. Late last year, it followed up with Money Across Generations II. Taken together, the two surveys reveal a great deal about how perceptions of wealth have changed in the four years since the Great Recession reshaped America's economic landscape.
According to Ameriprise, five years ago, 44% of baby boomers claimed that they were "trying to grow their savings." Today, that number has almost been cut in half: Only 24% of boomers are putting money aside for their old age. The same percentage are "simply trying to maintain what they have."
Even that modest goal has become rather difficult. On paper, boomers should occupy a sweet spot in America's economic structure. Well-established in their professions, they should be protected from low-level layoffs, yet should be young enough not to be suffering from heavy health care expenses.
The reality is much more complex. Many boomers lost their jobs in the massive layoffs of 2008 and 2009, and even those who didn't have been impacted by family members' financial woes. On one end of the spectrum, most boomers have stepped in to help their parents deal with money issues, often linked to health care costs. According to Money Across Generations II, 58% of boomers claim to have financially assisted their elderly parents: 22% reported that they've helped their parents purchase groceries, 15% have helped pay for medical bills, and 14% have helped out with utility bills.
On the other side, the majority of boomers have also been providing a financial lifeline for their offspring. More than half of boomer survey respondents have let their kids move back home and live rent free, and 93% have given their children some form of financial support.
All of this cross-generational support has come with a significant economic and emotional cost. One in 10 boomers surveyed claimed that helping their parents has "slowed down" their retirement savings; when it comes to their adult children, 34% say the same. And, as boomers have increasingly helped their families through the economic downturn, their perceptions of their own economic viability have slipped. In 2007, 51% of boomers reported being "very confident" of their ability to assure a "financially secure life" for themselves and their children. By 2011, that number had fallen to 33%. When it comes to their ability to care for their parents, boomer perceptions have had a similar downturn: In 2007, 33% were very confident of their ability to secure a financially secure life for their parents. Four years later, that number had dwindled to 19%.
For boomers, the recession could have devastating long-term effects. As the economy picks up, younger workers will likely find work, and many will be able to get their savings and retirement plans back on track. Their boomer parents, though, many of whom are on the final approach to retirement, may find that supporting parents and children has halted their retirement planning, depleted their savings accounts, or both. Cash-strapped thanks to their generosity, they may find themselves delaying retirement, and when they do stop working, their golden years may be a bit more tarnished.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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