Do Boomers Have It Harder Than Their Parents?

Do you ever feel as if you’re not getting anywhere financially, despite a good job and a decent salary? Do you think your standard of living is way below what your parents enjoyed at your age?

If you do, you’re not alone. Millions of middle-income baby boomers gripe that inflation has gobbled up their chance at the good life. Things were easier back then, they say.

Indeed, the “mom-and-dad-had-it-better” blues even hits Kathy Stepp now and again. Stepp, a successful Kansas-based financial planner, and her husband, an engineering technician, have two incomes. Two children. Two cars. Three televisions, a VCR, a video camera and cable TV. They have a four-bedroom home, a twice-a-month housekeeper and a lawn service.

Still, she says: “Are we in a comparable position to where my parents were at this point? It sure doesn’t feel like it. It feels like we are always struggling. I never felt like Mom and Dad were struggling.”


Before you harmonize the blues refrain, consider for a moment whether the problem is with your buying power or your memory.


Just what was it like in the ‘50s, when Mom and Dad were raising you? To hear some parents tell it, it was a lot like it is today.

Meet Harold and Mary Pearson--Kathy Stepp’s parents. They married in 1954.

Harold, recently out of the military, went back to college on the GI Bill. He attended school from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., then hopped on the bus to get to his first job, doing inventory control. When he finished up there, he went to a second job as a shipping clerk at a jewelry company. At night and on weekends, he worked at a department store. Mary worked as a secretary.

They had children right away--two in two years--but Mary continued to work until after they had their second child and Harold graduated from college. Ultimately, they had five children--three girls and two boys.

By 1957, Harold was out of school and had a full-time job. By saving money earned by working overtime and borrowing money from a relative, they were able to buy a house.

“No sooner had we moved into this house when all his overtime was cut,” Mary says. “We had this new home and this $104 mortgage. It was payday-to-payday. We always managed to do it. We just didn’t have any money.”

Still, there was food on the table and their friends were equally strapped, Mary notes. “That’s just how our lives were. And we were all very happy--just like on ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ ”

Their possessions: one car--they didn’t get a second car until about 1960. A washing machine. A used TV that they kept “until it blew up.” After nine years of marriage, they bought a used dishwasher. At year 10, they got a clothes dryer. They entertained at home until 1960 or ’61, when Mary was accepted into a neighborhood baby-sitting club, where a handful of mothers would trade off watching each other’s children once a week.

“Until then, we couldn’t afford to go to a movie. We used to have to pay a baby-sitter almost as much as it cost to go out,” Mary says. “It would double the cost of the evening.”

Harold was laid off twice but was able to secure new jobs fairly quickly. Then they got luckier and things got easier as Harold got increasingly responsible jobs. In 1966, he was named a company vice president. In 1990, Harold’s company was purchased by a British firm. He retired, with a substantial parting bonus, at age 59.

“We are extremely well-off financially,” Harold says. “The income we have from our savings is more than enough to allow us to live a very comfortable life.”


Their advice to people starting out reflects what they consider to be the keys to their financial success:

“You have to develop a savings plan as early as you can,” Harold says. “Take advantage of company savings plans that are available, like 401(k)s.”

Says Mary: “Work hard and don’t spend more than you make.

“Too many young people want everything right now. They don’t realize that if they work hard at their job and work into a better position--it may take years--but then they’ll be there. If they want to buy everything now and put it all on charge cards, they’ll never get out from under.”


Kathy M. Kristof welcomes your comments and suggestions for columns but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters and phone calls. Write to Personal Finance, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or message on the Internet.