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As more Californians fall behind in making debt payments, one group stands out

FILE - In this July 18, 2012, file photo, credit card logos are seen on a downtown storefront as a pedestrian passes in Atlanta. The coronavirus pandemic has made financial security a higher priority than ever. If you're in a stable position now, you can increase future flexibility by reducing credit card debt. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
More Californians are missing their monthly payments on debt, especially credit cards. Delinquency rates are highest for millennials. (David Goldman / Associated Press)

Stubbornly high inflation and interest rates are taking an increasing toll in California as the state experiences rising unemployment and slowing wage gains. And those feeling it the hardest: the largest and perhaps most budget-minded generation of them all.

Millennials, those roughly 28 to 43 years old, are generally thought to be more averse to debt and better savers than earlier cohorts such as Gen X (44 to 59 years old) and baby boomers (60 to 78).

But new data from the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley show that while consumer debts overall are growing and becoming more difficult to manage for all but the very oldest generation in America, millennials are having the most trouble making their loan payments on time.

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In the first quarter, 7.6% of millennial borrowers were at least 30 days late in making monthly payments on their credit card, auto and other loans. That compares with 6% of Gen X, 5.5% of Gen Z (ages 18 to 27) and 3.3% of boomers who fell behind on their loans. The earlier Silent and Greatest generations had even lower delinquency rates.

Unlike for Gen X-ers and boomers, the overall loan delinquency rate among millennials — who make up about one-fourth of California’s population — has now climbed above pre-pandemic levels. And economists worry that financial pressures will only continue to mount, especially with an end to the student loan repayment pause. Among other things, millennials are known for carrying a lot of college loan debt.

“I see no reason to believe that delinquencies aren’t going to be tracking higher,” said Evan B. White, the California Policy Lab’s executive director.

Foreclosures and personal bankruptcies for all ages are still very low by historical standards, as is the percentage of after-tax income that households are spending on making debt payments, another important indicator of financial stress.

Even so, consumers in California and across the country have been taking on more debt in recent quarters, including credit card borrowing. And 30-day delinquencies have been creeping higher — an early warning sign of potential trouble ahead.

Thus far consumer spending, which accounts for most of the nation’s economic growth, has held up well. But many people are feeling the effects of what’s been an extended period of high inflation and interest rates. A pullback by consumers could have a significant effect on the broader economy.

In the Federal Reserve’s annual report on the economic well-being of Americans, also released this week, about two-thirds of adults surveyed said that changes in the prices they paid in 2023 compared with the prior year had made their financial situation worse. And one-fifth of them said inflation had made things much worse.

The Fed report found that 72% of adults were at least “doing OK" financially, similar to the 73% figure in 2022 but well below the recent high of 78% in 2021.

U.S. households continue to benefit from a strong labor market, including solid, if slightly smaller, gains in wages. The nation’s unemployment rate was 3.9% in April, the 27th straight month in which the jobless figure has been below 4% — the longest such stretch since the 1960s.

California’s employment situation, however, has not been as strong. The pace of job gains statewide has lagged behind the nation’s. And California’s unemployment rate of 5.3% last month was the highest in the country, reflecting weakness in key sectors such as entertainment, high tech, and business and professional services. The number of unemployed workers in the state has increased by 164,000 over the last 12 months, according to California's Employment Development Department.

Meanwhile, wage growth has slowed more in California than for the nation overall — and it’s now running below the rate of inflation, meaning workers’ purchasing power is shrinking.

In the 12 months ending in April, the average hourly earnings for all private employees in California were up 1.4% from the prior year. That’s less than half the rate of both wage growth and inflation for the United States. In contrast, from 2016 to 2022, California employees saw wage gains averaging 3% to 6% per year.

Nationally, aside from student loans, delinquencies on all types of consumer debt have been steadily rising since the end of 2021, according to the New York Fed.

During the first two years of COVID-19, consumers paid down their debts significantly, thanks in part to stimulus checks and other government programs. But since then, credit card delinquencies, in particular, have risen above pre-pandemic levels, and an increasing share of borrowers are maxing out on their plastic, most of them younger adults.

Why millennials seem to be struggling more financially may seem puzzling at first. They’re the best-educated generation and the first to grow up in the digital age. But many millennials also had the misfortune of entering their formative adult lives amid the Great Recession that began in late 2007 and left a trail of job and financial hardships for some years. Saddled with student loans and other debt, they have been slower to move out of their parents’ homes, start families and build wealth compared with earlier generations.

More recently, with home mortgage rates and home prices having soared, many millennials are stuck in apartments and feeling the squeeze of higher rents and prices for certain services that they are likely to need given their stage in life, like day care.

In fact, the Fed’s economic well-being report found that while there was little change for most population groups between 2022 and last year, one notable exception was parents living with their children under age 18. Given that women are having children later, this group would include a disproportionate share of millennials.

“Those are years when you’re moving into higher expenses of buying homes, buying cars and even setting aside money for children’s college,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, which has studied generational differences in handling debt. “When we’ve experienced the type of inflation we’ve had, that really puts the squeeze on tight budgets.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.