Gen-Xers lost about half of their wealth between 2007 and 2010, according to a Pew Economic Mobility analysis last year. Even before the housing collapse, they were having trouble keeping up with their parents in building assets, according to Pew, which defines Generation X as people born between 1966 and 1975.
The bursting of the dot-com bubble, which culminated in a 67 percent drop in the Nasdaq Composite Index from 2000 to 2002, was a particularly severe blow to Gen-Xers just starting their careers. While most didn't directly own stocks, the economy slipped into recession and unemployment for 25- to 34-year-olds in 2003 hit its highest level in almost a decade.
Student loans also slowed asset-building, said Signe-Mary McKernan, an economist at the Washington-based Urban Institute.
"Under the impact of successive booms and busts, many Xers have struggled to afford a family or keep their home, much less do better than their parents," Neil Howe, co-author with William Strauss of books on generations in American history, said at a May 8 research symposium in St. Louis. "Then came the Great Recession, which hit Xers much harder."
The median income for 35- to 44-year-olds dropped 9.1 percent in the three years ended in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. Incomes of those age 35 or less, including the youngest Gen-Xers and Millennials, fell 10.5 percent.
While incomes of 35- to 44-year-olds deteriorated less than those of younger Americans, their net worth slumped by 54 percent, the most for any age group, as the value of stock holdings and properties declined. The median net worth of those younger than 35 declined 25 percent.
The group aged 35 to 44 fared badly in part because its members had taken on debt to buy real estate at just the wrong moment, said William Emmons, senior economic adviser at the St. Louis Fed's Center for Household Financial Stability. Those born from 1978 to 1983, straddling the line between Gen-Xers and Millennials, are at "ground zero" as the age group hurt most severely by the housing crisis, he said.