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The 1990s economic boom

Though the beginning of the 90s was called “sluggish,” the remainder of the decade more than made up for it. The latter half was a time of low unemployment, high consumer spending and huge stock market gains.

This is when the dot-com boom began to take off. Investors were pouring money into companies in Silicon Valley, many of which would fold in the dot-com bust in the late 90s and early 2000s.

The National Bureau of Economic Research determined that the longest period of U.S. economic expansion was the 120 months between March 1991 and March 2001. That is, until June 2009 to February 2020, which is now officially the longest expansion in the history of business cycles dating back to 1854.

The situation in the 90s was quite different, and things do seem harder for young people today when you consider the following:

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Housing

Many young people today have reportedly given up on the idea of ever owning a home. The data suggests housing may be more out of reach now than in the 90s.

In 2022, the typical first-time home buyer was 36 years old — an all-time high — according to the National Association of Realtors. It said first-time buyers are older as a result of saving for down payments for longer periods of time or relying on a generational transfer of wealth to propel them into homeownership.

The Pew Research Center, says among those ages 18 to 24, 57% are living with a parent today, compared with 53% in 1993.

In 2022, the share of American household income needed to rent an average-priced apartment crossed 30% for the first time in nearly 25 years, according to Moody’s Analytics.

It’s also worth noting that houses sold for a median price of $123,900 at the start of the 90s and by the end the median sale price was $165,300, according to the Federal Reserve. This was a 33% increase for the entire decade. From 2020 to 2024, home prices went from $329,000 to $417,700 — a 26% increase in just four years.

Wages

The federal minimum wage increased four times over the course of the 90s, according to the Department of Labor. It increased to $3.80 in 1990 and was $5.15 by 1997. The last time the minimum wage went up was in 2009 to $7.25, where it currently sits.

Wage stagnation has been a major hindrance to wealth building for young people in the 2020s.

One woman on TikTok broke down how a $100,000 salary doesn’t get you far because of the “productivity-pay gap."

From 1979 to 2022, hourly pay increased by 14.8%, according to an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But productivity has increased by 64.7% during the same time period — 4.4 times more than pay.

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Employment

The 1990s saw relatively low unemployment throughout the decade, peaking at 6.9% in 1992 and at its lowest at 3.4% in 1999, according to the Federal Reserve.

The 2020s saw a period of high unemployment at the height of the pandemic at 14.2%. But it has drastically decreased to 3.4% now.

Though unemployment is low in 2024, there are signs the labor market is weakening, like layoff announcements and an increase in number of people forced to accept part-time jobs.

Student debt

Total outstanding U.S. student debt crossed $1.6 trillion last year, according to the Federal Reserve. This is due to more young people choosing higher education and the costs involved rapidly rising over the past few decades.

"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most high schoolers did not enroll at colleges or universities; of those that did, less than half borrowed money to do so. In 2022, almost two-thirds of recent high school graduates were enrolled, and most took out student loans," said the Council on Foreign Relations.

"In 1980, the price to attend a four-year college full-time was $10,231 annually—including tuition, fees, room and board, and adjusted for inflation—according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2019-20, the total price increased to $28,775. That’s a 180% increase," wrote Forbes.

Inflation

The inflation rate fluctuation of the 90s was relatively low, ranging from 4.2% to 1.6%, according to the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.

But the 2020s alone has seen much higher fluctuations. June 2022 saw a 9.1% increase in inflation. It took a full year to get that back down to 3%, where it has hovered around ever since.

With wage stagnation and huge increases in the price of everyday goods, the 2020s have seen many people struggling to survive. According to a recent rather depressing Business Insider story citing a McKinsey study, millennials and Gen Zer are planning on “splurging” on groceries this year.

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Sabina Wex is a writer and podcast producer in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Fast Company, CBC and more.

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