American Consumers Newsletter

by Cheryl Russell, Editorial Director, New Strategist Press
August 2018

Trends in Student Loan Debt



2. Business Tools:

NEW: NSP ALL ACCESS PASS to digital content

To see Cheryl Russell’s Demo Memo blog, click here.

1. Hot Trends 

Trends in Student Loan Debt

The percentage of households with student loan debt has more than doubled in the past 24 years, according to an Employee Benefit Research Institute analysis of the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances. In 2016, a substantial 22.3 percent of American households had outstanding student loans, up from 10.5 percent in 1992. The percentage of households with student loans increased in every age group during those years…

Percentage of households with student loans, 2016 (and 1992)
Under age 35: 44.8% (24.4%)
Aged 35 to 44: 34.3% (11.7%)
Aged 45 to 54: 23.7% (5.7%)
Aged 55 to 64: 12.9% (2.9%)
Aged 65-plus: 2.4% (1.2%)Among households with student loans, the median amount owed has more than tripled, after adjusting for inflation–rising from $5,363 in 1992 to $19,000 in 2016. In the 35-to-44 age group, debt has quadrupled…

Median amount owed for student loans by debtors, 2016 (and 1992); in 2016 dollars
Under age 35: $18,500 ($5,363)
Aged 35 to 44: $20,100 ($4,860)
Aged 45 to 54: $20,000 ($6,201)
Aged 55 to 64: $18,000 ($12,234)
Aged 65-plus: $12,000 ($10,223)

While households with and without student loans are equally likely to have saved in a defined-contribution retirement plan, those without student loans have saved much more. Among householders aged 45 to 54 with a college degree, those without student loans had a median balance of $126,000 in their defined-contribution retirement plan in 2016. Those with student loans had a median balance of $46,000.

Student Loans Delay Homeownership

Student loans are preventing many younger adults from buying a home, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors and American Student Assistance. Survey respondents were Millennials aged 22 to 35 who are currently repaying their student loans.

Eighty percent of respondents do not own a home, the survey found, and the single biggest reason is student debt. Fully 83 percent of respondents say student loans are causing them to delay home buying. The biggest reason for the delay is their inability to save for a down payment (cited by 86 percent), followed by feeling financially insecure because of their debt (74 percent). How long will they delay buying a home? A median of seven years.

Student loan debt is also causing younger adults to delay other life decisions. The 55 percent majority of survey respondents say their  debt is causing them to delay starting a family, and 41 percent say it is causing them to delay getting married.

Wealth Gap Grows between Young and Old 

Americans aged 65 or older are the beneficiaries of a growing share of the nation’s resources, studies show, while children must make do with less. A paper published in Demography (Children and the Elderly: Wealth Inequality among America’s Dependents, $39.95) takes a look at the consequences of this disparity, and the results are troubling. Analyzing Survey of Consumer Finance data from 1989 to 2013, researchers Christina M. Gibson-Davis and Christine Percheski compare the wealth, income, assets, and debt of two types of households–those with children under age 18 (child households), and those with a householder or spouse aged 65 or older and no children under age 18 (elderly households).

Not surprisingly, elderly households have much greater wealth than child households, which is to be expected because older householders have had more time to accumulate wealth. The trouble lies in the growing gap between the two types of households. “In 1989, elderly households had a median net worth that was approximately 3.8 time that of child households ($106,647 vs. $27,889),” say the researchers, “by 2013, their median net worth was 12.5 times as high ($154,998 vs. $12,413).” Other findings:

  • The median net worth of elderly households grew 45 percent between 1989 and 2013, after adjusting for inflation, while the net worth of child households fell 56 percent.
  • The median income of child households fell 1 percent between 1989 and 2013, while the income of elderly households increased 29 percent.
  • The median assets of child households grew only 13 percent during those years while their median debt climbed 68 percent–from $29,915 to $50,300. The assets of elderly households grew by a much larger 75 percent, and their debt grew from a median of $0 to a modest $900.
  • The homeownership rate of child households fell 2.6 percentage points between 1989 and 2013, and their home equity dropped 28 percent. The homeownership rate of elderly households climbed 10.8 percentage points and their home equity increased 28 percent.
“The declining absolute and relative wealth holdings of most families with children is likely to impede the human capital development of the next generation of Americans,” the researchers conclude. “We posit that such underinvestments in children are likely to have negative long-term societal consequences for the United States.”

Who Has Had a Biological Child?

Yes, the nation’s fertility rate is at an all-time low. Yes, the number of births has fallen to levels not seen in 30 years. Nevertheless, most Americans will have children. In fact, most women aged 25 or older and most men aged 30 or older are parents, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (Fertility of Men and Women Aged 15-44 in the United States: National Survey of Family Growth, 2011-2015). Here is the percentage who have had a biological child by age…

Percentage of women who have had a biological child
Aged 15 to 24: 17.1%
Aged 25 to 29: 52.1%
Aged 30 to 34: 76.2%
Aged 35 to 39: 80.0%
Aged 40 to 44: 85.0%

Percentage of men who have had a biological child
Aged 15 to 24: 7.6%
Aged 25 to 29: 37.2%
Aged 30 to 34: 58.6%
Aged 35 to 39: 74.8%
Aged 40 to 44: 80.4%

Overall, 44 percent of men and 55 percent of women aged 15 to 44 have had a biological child.

True or False: Most Immigrants Are in the United States Legally

True, but most Americans do not know that. Only 45 percent of the public knows that most immigrants in the United States are here legally, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Nearly as many (42 percent) think most immigrants are here illegally, and 13 percent say they do not know. By age, here is the percentage of Americans who say (correctly) that most immigrants in the U.S. are here legally…

Most immigrants are in the U.S. legally
Aged 18 to 29: 58%
Aged 30 to 49: 47%
Aged 50 to 64: 39%
Aged 65-plus: 35%

Among people aged 50 or older, the share who think most immigrants in the U.S. are here illegally (45 to 46 percent) surpasses the share who think most are legal.

Forty Years of Bigger Houses

New single-family houses have been getting bigger, according to the Census Bureau. Those built in 2017 had a median of 2,426 square feet of floor area. While this is not the record high, it’s close. The record was set in 2015 when new single-family homes had a median of 2,467 square feet…

Median square feet of floor area in new single-family houses
2017: 2,426
2016: 2,422
2015: 2,467 (record high)
2007: 2,277
1997: 1,975
1987: 1,755
1977: 1,610

Single-family homes built in 2017 are 51 percent larger than those built in 1977.

14% of Millennials Identify as LGBTQ

A large portion of the Millennial generation identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, according to a survey from the GenForward Project at the University of Chicago (Millennial Attitudes on LGBT Issues: Race, Identity, and Experience). Overall, 14 percent of Millennials identify as LGBTQ. By race and Hispanic origin, here are the numbers…
Millennials who identify as LGBTQ
Asians: 9%
Blacks: 14%
Hispanics: 22%
Non-Hispanic Whites: 13%

These figures are higher than those found in other surveys. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 7.3 percent of Millennials identify as LGBT. According to the 2016 General Social Survey, 6.9 percent of Millennials identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. According to the 2011-13 National Survey of Family Growth, 6.6 percent of women and 3.8 percent of men aged 25 to 34 report their sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

49% of Americans Trying to Lose Weight

Most Americans are overweight, and many are trying to do something about it. You could almost call it a national obsession.

In the past 12 months, nearly half (49 percent) of adults aged 20 or older tried to lose weight, according to a National Center for Health Statistics report. The attempt to shed pounds is embraced by 52 percent of 40-to-49-year-olds, 50 percent of 20-to-39-year-olds, and 43 percent of those aged 60-plus. The 56 percent majority of women are trying to lose weight, as are 42 percent of men. Even those who don’t have a weight problem have gotten caught up in the frenzy. Among adults who are underweight or normal weight, 26.5 percent are trying to lose weight. The figure is 49 percent among those who are overweight and rises to 67 percent among the obese.

Here are the ways Americans are trying to lose weight (multiple responses allowed):

63 percent exercised
63 percent ate less
50 percent ate more fruits, vegetables, or salads
45 percent drank a lot of water
42 percent ate less junk food or fast food
39 percent changed eating habits
39 percent ate less sugar, candy, or sweets
35 percent switched to foods with lower calories
30 percent ate fewer carbohydrates
29 percent ate less fat
16 percent skipped meals

It isn’t working. Despite all the frenzied attempts to lose weight, obesity has been rising steadily for years. The latest NCHS reporton obesity, based on the measured heights and weights of a nationally representative sample of people aged 20 or older, found 40 percent of Americans to be obese in 2015-2016, up from 36 percent in 2009-2010 and 30.5 percent in 1999-2000.

5% of Americans Are Vegetarian, 3% Are Vegans 

Five percent of Americans are vegetarians, according to a Gallup survey, and another 3 percent are vegan. Vegetarians are those who do not eat meat, and vegans reject all animal products. By age, both vegetarians and vegans peak in the 30-to-49 age group…

Percent who are vegetarian
Aged 18 to 29: 7%
Aged 30 to 49: 8%
Aged 50 to 64: 3%
Aged 65-plus: 2%

Percent who are vegan
Aged 18 to 29: 3%
Aged 30 to 49: 4%
Aged 50 to 64: 1%
Aged 65-plus: 3%

Males Aged 15 to 19 Are Gaming More  

On an average day in 2017, teenaged boys aged 15 to 19 spent 1.3 hours playing games as a primary activity, according to a Demo Memo analysis of the American Time Use Survey. The “playing games” category includes computer and video games as well as board and card games. A decade ago, males in the age group spent only about half as much time playing games–0.72 hours per day.

The averages mask the depth of the obsession, however. Males aged 15 to 19 are more likely than any other segment of the population to play games–fully 43 percent (!) played games on an average day in 2017, and those who played spent an average of 3.03 hours (!) doing so. These figures are substantially higher than they were a decade ago. In 2007, a smaller 31 percent of 15-to-19-year-olds males played games on an average day, and those who did spent 2.29 hours doing so.

The growing percentage of 15-to-19-year-olds who game on an average day, coupled with the increasing amount of time spent gaming, means that gaming is likely crowding out other activities. In 2017, 15-to-19-year-old male gamers spent more time with a joystick than they did watching television (2.77 hours on average for 15-to-19-year-old male participants), playing sports (2.34 hours), or doing homework (2.16 hours).

31% Engaged in Gig Work in Past Month

Nearly one-third of Americans participate in the gig economy. Thirty-one percent of adults engaged in gig work in the past month, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking. Gig work is highest among younger adults: 43 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds did some type of gig work in the past month. Among people aged 65 or older, the figure was 18 percent.

Online services are the most popular type of gig work, with 16 percent of the public engaged in online gig work in the past month, such as…

  • 11% sold goods online
  • 4% provided services through online platforms such as Task Rabbit
  • 2% drove for a ride-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft
  • 2% rented their place of residence through online services

Offline services were provided by 14 percent of the public, such as…

  • 7% provided housecleaning, yard work, or other property maintenance
  • 6% provided child care, dog walking, or house sitting
  • 2% provided disabled adult or elder care services

Offline sales were made by 9 percent, such as…

  • 6% sold goods at flea markets or garage sales
  • 4% sold goods at consignment shops or thrift stores

Why do gig work? The single biggest reason is to supplement income from regular work (39 percent), followed by hobby/fun (19 percent), and as a primary source of income (16 percent).

30% Use Ride-Sharing Services

Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are used by 30 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup survey. The figure is highest among young adults…

Percent who use ride-sharing services
Aged 18 to 29: 45%
Aged 30 to 49: 36%
Aged 50 to 64: 23%
Aged 65-plus: 13%

Boomer Religious Beliefs Stable

Are Boomers becoming more religious with age? Not according to a Demo Memo analysis of the General Social Survey, which has been tracking the attitudes of Americans since 1972. The religious beliefs of Boomers have changed surprisingly little over the decades.
Religious preference: When Boomers were young in 1976, the oldest among them filling the 18-to-30 age group, the 54 percent majority named Protestant as their religious preference. Only 13 percent said they had no religious preference. Now that Boomers are getting long in the tooth (aged 52 to 70 in 2016), 56 percent name Protestant as their religious preference and 15 percent say “none.” The differences between then and now are not statistically significant.
Religiosity: The percentage of Boomers who identify themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious stood at 64 percent in 2016 (at ages 52 to 70). The figure was 62 percent in 1998 (at ages 34 to 52), the first year the question appeared on the survey. The percentage identifying themselves as “not religious” was 13 percent in 1998 and 17 percent in 2016. The differences between then and now are not statistically significant.
Belief in God: In 2016, the 62 percent majority of Boomers (at ages 52 to 70) agreed with the statement, “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” This figure was as high as 66 percent in 2006 (at ages 42 to 60). It was as low as 59 percent in 1988 (at ages 24 to 42), the first year the question appeared on the survey. Only 2 percent of Boomers in 1988 and 3 percent of Boomers in 2016 said they did not believe in God. The differences between then and now are not statistically significant.
As they aged from young adults to retirees, the religious beliefs of Boomers did not change. What does this mean for Millennials? It means Millennial religious beliefs–as recorded by the 2016 General Social Survey when they were aged 22 to 39–are not likely to change in the decades ahead. Thirty-two percent of Millennials say they have no religious preference, more than twice the share among Boomers. Forty-three percent of Millennials say they are very or moderately religious, well below the Boomer share. Just 50 percent of Millennials say they believe in God without a doubt.

55% in U.S. Pray Every Day

The United States is an outlier when it comes to prayer, according to Pew Research Center. It is the only wealthy country in the world in which the majority of the population prays daily. Here are some comparisons with other countries…

Percentage of adults who pray daily, for selected countries
United States: 55%
Mexico: 40%
Canada: 25%
Italy: 21%
Australia: 18%
Russia: 18%
Sweden: 11%
France: 10%
Germany: 9%
United Kingdom: 6%

The percentage of adults who pray every day is highest in Afghanistan (96 percent) and lowest in China (1 percent). Of 102 countries examined by Pew, the average is 49 percent. Sociologists theorize that countries with high levels of income inequality often have high levels of religiosity, reports Pew.

Life Expectancy Gap Grew in 2016

In the United States, women live longer than men. But the female advantage has been shrinking for decades–until now. In 2016 the life expectancy gap between females and males widened for the first time since 1990, according to the National Center for Health Statistics report, Deaths: Final Data for 2016, increasing from 4.8 to 5.0 years between 2015 and 2016. Here is the trend since 1950…

Gap in female-male life expectancy
2016: 5.0 years (first increase since 1989-90)
2015: 4.8 years
2010: 4.8 years
2000: 5.2 years
1990: 7.0 years
1980: 7.4 years
1979: 7.8 years (biggest gap)
1970: 7.6 years
1960: 6.5 years
1950: 5.5 years

Since 1950, the life expectancy of both males and females has increased substantially–rising from 65.6 to 76.1 years (+10.5 years) for males, and from 71.1 to 81.1 years (+10.0 years) for females. During those years, the female-male life expectancy gap grew from 5.5 years in 1950 to a peak of 7.8 years in 1979. The gap then began to shrink, falling to 4.8 years from 2010 through 2015.

Behind the 1950-to-1979 increase in the female-male life expectancy gap were higher rates of smoking and heart disease among men. As smoking rates fell and heart disease was better controlled, the life expectancy gap began to decline. The decline has come to a halt, at least temporarily, as male mortality rates rise faster than female for some causes of death. One of those causes is drug-induced deaths. Between 2015 and 2016, the drug-induced mortality rate of males climbed 26.0 percent. The female rate increased by a smaller 13.6 percent.

How Many Are Lonely?

Nearly 1 in 12 Americans aged 18 or older reported feeling lonely most or all of the time during the past week, according to a Demo Memo analysis of the 2016 General Social Survey. Several questions in the 2016 survey probed the public’s emotional health. The good news is that few of us spent most of the past week feeling bad. The bad news is that some of us did. Five percent felt depressed most or all of the time in the past week, 6 percent felt sad, and 8 percent felt lonely.

Felt lonely most or all of the time in the past week
Aged 18 to 29: 7.4%
Aged 30 to 39: 4.4%
Aged 40 to 49: 9.4%
Aged 50 to 59: 11.9%
Aged 60 to 69: 7.4%
Aged 70-plus: 5.1%

Loneliness peaks among people in their 50s, with 12 percent saying they felt lonely most or all of the time. One factor that may cause loneliness in this age group is the emptying nest. Loneliness is least likely among people in their 30s, the crowded-nest years. The oldest Americans–people aged 70 or older–are one of the age groups least likely to feel lonely.

Retirement Plan Participation Declining? No, says EBRI

The percentage of workers who participate in a retirement plan is declining, according to the Current Population Survey. Don’t believe it, says the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

In an ongoing battle with the redesigned Current Population Survey, EBRI’s Craig Copeland analyzes the supposed decline in retirement participation recorded by the CPS and argues that something is very wrong with the survey’s data. Reporting on this problem has become an annual undertaking by Copeland. This is his third analysis since the CPS was redesigned, and no resolution seems to be in sight. The Demo Memo posts about his earlier reports can be found here and here.

According to the Current Population Survey, the percentage of full-time, full-year workers who participate in a retirement plan fell from 54.5 percent in 2013–before the CPS was redesigned to better capture retirement income–to just 41.0 percent in 2016. Among workers aged 55 to 64, participation fell from 57.1 percent in 2013 to 48.1 percent in 2016.

These figures are at odds with rising participation rates found in other government surveys, says Copeland, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey. Among private-sector workers at establishments with 500 or more employees, the NCS found a stable 76 percent participating in a retirement plan from 2013 to 2016. The CPS found only 47 percent participating in 2016 (after the redesign), down from 64 percent in 2013 (before the redesign). A study of IRS data confirms stability in retirement plan participation rather than the decline charted by the CPS.

“Rather modest modifications could be made within the CPS questionnaire along the lines of other federal government surveys to improve the retirement plan participation estimates,” concludes Copeland. “Until that time, any person or organization using the data or those reading analyses from the CPS data need to be aware of the issues with the data. The estimates from the most recent surveys could easily be misconstrued as erosions in coverage, as opposed to an issue with the design of the survey.”

These are a sampling of posts published in the past few weeks in Cheryl Russell’s Demo Memo blog. Please send questions or comments to



Percentage of households with a dishwasher…
Homeowners: 77%
Renters: 53%




Here are your one-stop resources for understanding American consumers–vital, cost effective information. Get the answers you need for business success in today’s competitive economy!
ORDER TODAY (all New Strategist titles are available in searchable PDFs with links to spreadsheets of data tables):

New Strategist’s digital content is now available by subscription. Introducing the NSP All Access Pass. We’ve bundled all our digital content–30 titles, 5 book series, 10,000 pages, analyzing 500 products and services purchased by American consumers–an incredible support tool to identify customers, get in front of emerging trends, and secure your business success. To find out more, click here.  

If you want the big picture, the all-new 14th edition of The American Marketplace: Demographics and Spending Patterns is for you. Designed for convenience, The American Marketplace collects in one handy volume the latest demographic and socioeconomic data to keep you up to date with the ever-changing consumer landscape. Its hundreds of tables are organized into 11 chapters: attitudes, education, health, housing, income, labor force, living arrangements, population, spending, time use, and wealth. New to this edition are 2016 population estimates, revealing surprising patterns of growth. The Attitudes chapter has data from the 2016 General Social Survey. The Income chapter, with 2016 income statistics from the 2017 Current Population Survey, reveals the struggle to stay afloat. The Wealth chapter examines net worth in 2016 and the slow recovery from the Great Recession.
Click here for more information about the book.
Hardcover: $143.00 (978-1-937737-48-1) 631 pages
Paper: $108.95 (978-1-937737-49-8)
PDF with Excel (single user): $108.95 (978-1-937737-50-4)
Multi-user site license: $330.00
Find out how the American marketplace has been transformed as we recovered from the Great Recession in the new 12th edition of Best Customers: Demographics of Consumer Demand with 2014 spending data. Best Customers is a unique look at who the best and biggest customers are for hundreds of individual products and services. The new edition of Best Customers includes spending trends since the Great Recession, product by product, revealing at a glance who spends the most and who controls the largest market share on over 300 products and services organized into 21 chapters such as Entertainment, Groceries, Computers, Telephones, etc.–everything a consumer might buy. Each product table is accompanied by text that identifies the best customers, analyzes spending patterns, and examines spending trends since the Great Recession.
Click here for more information about the book.
Hardcover: $143.00 (978-1-937737-39-9) 816 pages
Paper: $108.95 (978-1-937737-40-5)
PDF with Excel (single user): $108.95 (978-1-937737-41-2)
Multi-user site license: $330.00
The all-new American Generations is for those who want to stay on top of the nation’s dynamic generational mix–from the preschool Recession generation to the adolescent iGeneration, from young adult Millennials to middle-aged Generation X, from “go-go” Baby Boomers to “slow-go” Swing and World War II generations. This edition of American Generations includes 2016 attitudes data from the General Social Survey, as well as recent income, housing, labor force, spending, and time use data. Each chapter includes tables and text showing how the generations are alike and different, the important trends to watch, and what to expect in the future.
Click here for more information about the book, including a Look Inside and a list of the analyzed topics.
Hardcover: $143.00 (978-1-937737-45-0) 488 pages
Paper: $108.95 (978-1-937737-46-7)
PDF with Excel (single user): $108.95 (978-1-937737-47-4)
Multi-user site license: $330.00

by Cheryl Russell
You might call Demographics of the U.S. the encyclopedia of the 21st century. This all-new edition of Demographics of the U.S. focuses tightly on what has happened since the year 2000. It collects, in one place, the broad range of demographic and socioeconomic trends as we veered off the path of prosperity, and it details where we’ve been ever since. This is a reference tool for those who want perspective on the many ongoing changes in American life–a perspective critical for understanding the future. It includes single-year data on many topics and highlights the most important trends of the 21st century.

Demographics of the U.S. explains the increasingly complex, often confusing, and rapidly changing nation we live in today. It makes sense of the recent past and shines a light on our future. The reference is divided into 11 chapters, organized alphabetically: Attitudes, Education, Housing, Income, Labor Force, Living Arrangements, Population, Spending, Time Use, and Wealth.

Click here for more information about the book, including a Look Inside and a List of Trends examined.

Hardcover: $143.00 (978-1-937737-51-1) 585 pages
Paper: $108.95 (978-1-937737-52-8)
PDF with Excel (single user): $108.95 (978-1-937737-53-5)
Multi-user site license: $330.00

Looking for customers? Repositioning your products? Americans are spending again, but only those who are on top of the trends will know who’s spending and what they’re buying. The new 21st edition of the best-selling Household Spending: Who Spends How Much on What reveals who spends and the products and services they buy. Included in the 21st edition is a look at the spending recovery of 2014 as well as the long decline from the peak-spending year of 2006 to the post-Great Recession low of 2013.

Based on unpublished data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014 Consumer Expenditure Survey, Household Spending examines how much American households spend on hundreds of products and services by the demographics that count: age, income, household type, region of residence, race and Hispanic origin, and educational attainment.

Hardcover: $149.00 (978-1-940308-95-1) 613 pages
Paper: $114.95 (978-1-940308-96-8)
PDF with Excel (single user): $114.95 (978-1-940308-98-2)

For your convenience, all of New Strategist’s titles are available as searchable single- and multiple-user PDFs linked to spreadsheets of each data table so you can do your own analyses and create PowerPoint presentations.
Percentage of people who moved in the past year, by generation…
Millennials: 19%
Gen Xers: 9%
Boomers: 5%
Older: 3%