05/17/2014 01:07 EDT | Updated 05/17/2014 03:59 EDT

Millennials Better Off Than Their Parents? Debt, House Prices Suggest Otherwise

Shutterstock / Photobank gallery

Generation Y, you’re probably still screwed.

Millennials are earning two per cent more than their parents did at the same age, according to a recent BMO Economics report.

But that two per cent pales in comparison to the debt loads they’re accumulating that are about 260 per cent higher than their parents had at that age in the 1980s.

Under-35 households owed some $36.44 in debt per $100 in assets in 2012, an increase from $10 per $100 in assets in 1984, according to Statistics Canada data.

“Generation Screwed,” as they have unceremoniously been dubbed, has heard they may be the first generation to be worse off than their parents.

But the BMO report suggested millennials, born roughly between 1980 and 2000, are doing better than they thought because they actually have better job prospects, earn more and are wealthier than their parents were.

“Given the popular view portrayed in the media, millennials would be forgiven for thinking their parents had a big financial head-start, and that they will become the first generation to do worse than their ancestors,” economist Sal Guatieri wrote in a new report for BMO Economics.

“But the data suggest otherwise.”

Indeed, the stats presented in the report -- on income, net worth and employment -- do suggest they’re slightly ahead of their parents, but the data left out speaks volumes, and has left some who study the demographic scratching their heads over the rosy portrait painted by the report.

Data on earnings, net worth and unemployment paints an incomplete picture of the factors at play, which also include soaring home prices, alarming levels of student debt and the rising cost of living and raising a family, said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data research firm.

The report found that inflation-adjusted median income for people aged 25 to 34 rose to $34,700 in 2011, compared to $33,900 in 1984. That’s a meagre $800 in income growth over the course of 30 years.

“That doesn’t sound like much, but the difference adds up over time. One caveat is that real median income was higher in the 1970s, before the 1980s’ recession took a severe toll on workers, so the starting point for our comparison matters,” Guatieri said.

Coletto points out that the stats account for inflation, but the cost of many everyday household expenses, such as child care and groceries, has grown much faster than the overall two-per-cent-per-year rise in inflation. Young couples with children now owe $1.80 for every dollar they earn.

Millennials appear to be doing better on the wealth front, with young families’ net worth hovering around $52,000 in 2012, nearly double the $28,752 held in 1984. However, net worth — the value of the things you own, minus your debt — can be a fleeting gauge of financial health because it can be driven higher by momentary factors such as high home prices and pension plans. That can obscure other factors like a big rise in debt levels.

Job-seeking millennials have a 93 per cent chance of success, up three per cent for the comparable age group than during and after the 1980-1982 recession, BMO found.

“Today, unemployed youngsters tend to go without work almost a month less than in the mid-1980s. Proportionately more young people either have a job or are actively searching for one.”

However, the data doesn’t say anything about the quality of those jobs.

One persistent problem for millennials is the issue of “underemployment,” when post-secondary grads settle for jobs for which they are overqualified. Millennials are the most educated generation in history, but one in four of them who has a degree has a full-time job that doesn’t require it.

Guatieri pointed out that there are fewer full-time work hours for millennials, though he said it is partially by choice as new technology has allowed decent pay for some part-time and contract positions.

The increase in precarious work — unstable work like part-time and contract positions — is of particular concern for youth advocates and unions who say it could lead to an erosion of labour rights and wealth over time.

Millennials are also graduating with more student debt, both because tuition costs have risen three times faster than consumer prices since 1984, according to BMO, and because millennials are staying in school longer to secure a job they might have gotten with a lower level of education when their parents were looking for their first jobs.

“They’re starting out in their careers, their life, much later and probably with much greater amount of debt,” Coletto said.

The cost of undergraduate tuition sits at an all time high of $5,772 per year, compared to around $1,000 in 1984.

Data compiled by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the number of minimum wage hours worked to pay for an undergraduate degree has more than doubled from 230 hours in 1975 to 570 by 2013.

Story continues below

Photo gallery How Many Hours Of Work To Pay For Tuition? See Gallery

“We have a larger population of people who have received post-secondary education so it means, in absolute numbers, there’s actually a lot more people who are being underemployed,” said Sean Geobey, Research Manager at the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience.

“But that’s not nearly as worrying as the trends in the growth of precarious work.”

Geobey, who wrote a paper on youth unemployment rates in Ontario for the CCPA, said data suggests the trend toward insecure work is worsening, making it harder to pay back student debt and save for the future.

Exorbitantly high home prices also make it harder for young people to get their foot in the door of their first home in some Canadian cities. That means many millennials are dumping their money into rent, rather than building equity in their homes.

Many are postponing the age at which they buy their first home, which will reduce the amount they have saved over time. That’s bad news come retirement for a generation who is seeing their pension benefits whittled away.

“Yes, our parents had incredibly high interest rates, but they didn’t have to put down as much to buy a place, yes it was expensive to maintain the home, but you could at least buy it,” Coletto said.

The average Canadian home cost about $76,000 in 1984. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $158,000 today. But the national average house price has surpassed $400,000 -- houses are two and a half times as expensive today as they were in 1984.

Story continues below

Photo gallery Cities Where Middle Income No Longer Buys You A House See Gallery

Home ownership rates among the 25-34 demographic are slightly higher than they were in the 1980s, but many millennials are overextending themselves to make that happen, and could find themselves underwater when mortgage rates inevitably rise.

The BMO report acknowledges the problem.

“For millennials, more debt could hamper spending and retirement savings, though more education should translate into better salaries over time, supporting debt servicing,” Guatieri said.

Goebey and Coletto believe that while the report suggests millennials are better off in the short-term, the current environment positions them to fall further behind their parents in the long run.

Coletto points out there are also psychological factors that make Generation Y feel worse off than their parents.

“They really felt and they were really told that if you get your education, when you come out, there’s going to be opportunities for them. But for many it is not that way.”

America Votes
The latest polls, breaking news and analysis on the U.S. election from HuffPost’s Washington, D.C. bureau