personal finance

‘Will I ever retire?’: millennials wonder what’s on the other side of middle age

Claire*, 42, was always told: “Follow your dreams and the money will follow.” So that’s what she did. At 24, she opened a retail store with a friend in downtown Ottawa, Canada. She’d managed to save enough from a part-time government job during university to start the business without taking out a loan.

For many years, the store did well – they even opened a second location. Claire started to feel financially secure. “A few years ago I was like, wow, I actually might be able to do this until I retire,” she told me. “I’ll never be rich, but I have a really wonderful work-life balance and I’ll have enough.”

But in midlife, she can’t afford to buy a house, and she’s increasingly worried about what retirement would look like, or if it would even be possible. “Was I foolish to think this could work?” she now wonders.

She’s one of many millennials who, in their 40s, are panicking about the realities of midlife: financial precarity, housing insecurity, job instability and difficulty saving for the future. It’s a different kind of midlife crisis – less impulsive sports car purchase and more “will I ever retire?” In fact, a new survey of 1,000 millennials showed that 81% feel they can’t afford to have a midlife crisis. Our generation is the first to be downwardly mobile, at least in the US, and do less well than our parents financially. What will the next 40 years will look like?

Claire was raised by a single mom who worked as a librarian. Even on a single salary, her mom had been able to buy a C$178,000 (US$130,000) house, not far from Ottawa’s downtown core. Shortly after the pandemic, Claire looked at a house nextdoor to her mom, hoping to be closer to her and her business, but the house was listed for over C$800,000. Claire still rents; she has about $75,000 saved up for a downpayment, though she fears that’s “shockingly far from enough.” In Canada, people under 40 have the lowest homeownership rate, hit by soaring home prices and recent interest rate increases. The average home price in Ottawa is just over C$700,000.

She has a six-year-old son and sometimes wonders if she should give him a sibling. But she’s concerned about how that would affect the family budget. “Two kids would make this 1,000 times more stressful,” she says. “Trying to save for two kids’ educations, summer camps for two kids? I feel like I’m barely scraping by with one.”

These days, she’s not sure if running her store is sustainable. “Is it supposed to be a hobby for me to do this?” she asks. “I don’t want to be a millionaire – I just want to make like, $70,000 a year. Is that too much to ask?”

While Claire is her own boss, others are at the whims of an ever-changing labor landscape, living through layoff after layoff, watching some industries disintegrate over the years.

Katie, 43, is a journalist who worked at newspapers and magazines before she went freelance 11 years ago. She’s experienced job precarity her whole career. Her first real byline, she told me, ended up on the front page on her 21st birthday: “College Seniors Fear the Job Market.” Indeed, she moved back in with her parents in St Paul, Minnesota after college – at the time, the journalism job market “was dismal”, she says. Much like the present, the industry “was being gutted at an alarming pace and outlets did not have the capacity to hire”.

When she finally did land a job, as an editor for a weekly community newspaper in St Paul, she remembers calculating her hourly pay and realized “people were making more money in fast food”. Over the next few years, she found steadier work. Then in the financial crash of 2008, like many in her generation, she was laid off, right before her wedding. By the time she was 30, she’d already had to “hopscotch to three different jobs”, she says. “Things often felt pretty bleak. Everything that worked out simply felt like a lucky strike.”

Though she finally feels more secure in her work opportunities now, she worries about the future; she doesn’t feel optimistic about building wealth, either. Older friends always said things would be easier as she got older, her own cohort feels less optimistic. “We’re running headlong into a future that is not going to be predictable the way their lives had been,” she says.

She knows some might say to change careers if it feels so bleak, but that’s not easy. “There’s never been anything else I’ve wanted to do or felt suited for,” she says. As for 20 years from now, well: “Retirement feels like a joke,” she says.

Of course, not all millennials are feeling this pinch equally. In a study of millennial wealth in the US led by the University of Cambridge, researchers found a significant wealth gap. “The wealthiest millennials have more wealth than previous generations at the same age, but the poorest millennials have less [than previous generations]”, Rob Gruijters, one of the researchers involved with the study, told me.

While the wealthiest millennials are doing fine, Gruijters points out that “a substantial number of millennials remain stuck in precarious careers, with limited economic prospects.” When it comes to family, he says millennials are more likely to stay in the parental home longer, have children later and be “single at midlife than previous generations”.

Like Claire and Katie, I grew up with humble means but managed to get an education and worked in my chosen field not long after graduating. But I’ve always felt like the rug was going to be pulled out from under me. Within the first six months at my first newsroom job, my employer announced massive layoffs. I still remember the knot in the pit of my stomach while I waited to find out if I’d be affected, wondering how I’d pay my rent or afford to live in Toronto, where I’d just moved. I lived in fear until I could confirm my contract job was safe, at least for the time being.

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I feel exactly the same nearly 20 years later, watching staff jobs and entire outlets disappear. Many of my friends in their mid-30s to early 40s who work in tech, media and finance have also been laid off recently. With precarious gig work and patchy, temporary employment making greater headway in the jobs market, the number of years a person might spend in any one role has fallen.

There have been trend pieces about how much millennials are struggling financially and career-wise for 10 or 15 years. It feels like nothing has changed for us. We should be at the peak of our careers and enjoying some security, but many of us are still renting: millennials make up the majority of the renting population, at the mercy of landlords and drastically rising rents.

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I’m 41. I have three young kids, and when I think about the coming decades I feel a tightness in my chest. What job should I even strive for when so many in my field – media – no longer exist? I spend a good chunk of my days researching other careers, but the landscape looks challenging everywhere. I dream of moving to a small town, but that wouldn’t necessarily solve any of my problems, given that the housing crisis has spared not even the farthest of reaches.

Katie has three school-age kids and is concerned about what the next 20 years might look like for them too. “Watching what’s happened in their lives and what might be coming for their future has me deeply worried,” she says.

I always imagined a midlife crisis was something fanciful. It used to mean taking the opportunity to live out a youthful dream or change up your life because you finally had the means to do so. But millennials’ midlife crisis looks quite different. For Katie it means feeling shorted. “I think a lot of millennials rightfully feel left behind,” she says. “They have choices they want to make but the reality of the situation is they can’t.”

I feel the same – like the promise of financial security still exists because generations before us had it. In reality, though, it may be entirely out of reach.

* Name has been changed


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