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America's younger workers losing ground on income

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A long-term trend of falling interest rates since the 1980s, for example, means that even after the recent runup in home prices, houses are generally more affordable today than they were 20 years ago. And homes today contain gadgets - from a child's video-game system to an adult's pocket e-mail device - that didn't exist a generation ago.

At the same time, however, evidence of economic challenges also abounds.

The signs include:

• Rising debt levels. Over the past decade, the volume of federal student loans tripled, reaching $85 billion in new loans last year, according to a new book by Anya Kamenetz, "Generation Debt." Nearly a quarter of college students are using credit cards to pay some of their tuition costs, she writes.

• The median income for men under age 44 was significantly lower in 1997 than in 1970, after adjusting for inflation, according to a long-term analysis by the Census Bureau in the late 1990s. For those over 45, incomes barely held their own during that period.

• The entry of women into the workforce in those decades has helped push median family incomes up over time. But even when men and women are included together, younger workers (age 25-34) are earning well below what they did in 1970. And at all ages, evidence suggests that families are putting in more hours of work to make their household incomes rise.

• Even with extra time at work, median family income has barely budged since 1995 for householders below 45, up about 5 percent after inflation through 2004.

Those aged 45 to 54 did better, with family incomes rising 23 percent during that period, according to the numbers released last week from the Federal Reserve Board.

And since the end of 2001, at the outset of the current economic expansion, younger workers again have underperformed, with incomes generally falling while their older counterparts have seen incomes rise.

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