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Podcast / May 19 2021

Fixing the generational wealth gap

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Host Nelufar Hedayat begins this episode with a trip to her old London neighborhood of Hampstead, where she and her younger sister Fatema go apartment hunting and find out just how unattainable home ownership is for younger generations.

Next she talks to debt relief advocate Astra Taylor about some of the factors that have created the generational wealth gap. Finally, Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, talks about how to work within government and established systems to create change.



Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.


This is Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and in season two, we’re focusing on polarization. In each episode, I explore a topic that’s dividing us. I talk to people with a range of perspectives on an issue, and I try to challenge myself to understand positions that aren’t necessarily comfortable for me. So far this season, we’ve looked at things like politics, religion and racial divides. Today we’re looking at the generational gap and how it relates to wealth. What may have felt like a tiny fissure has turned into a crack, into a gulf, and is now quite positively a cavernous, gaping hole of a divide, which seems to be growing bigger and, frankly, more hostile by the day. We hear it all around us, almost every day from…

Are millennials spoiled babies? The accusation this time came in a video that has gone viral —

“Generation Snowflake.” That’s a label thrown around a lot lately, but what exactly does it mean?

NELUFAR: To this:

“OK, Boomer.” It’s the millennials’ newest clapback directed at baby boomers.

They’re baby boomers. They went from “love is all you need” to “whoever winds up with the most toys wins.”

NELUFAR: And even this:

You ever taken a smartphone away from a 20-something? They don’t know what to do, they look like they got hit with a shovel. “I should’ve learned how to talk to people.”


NELUFAR: Belt-buckle phone cases and internet memes aside, there’s a serious cost to not focusing on the generational gap, especially when it comes to building wealth. And taking a look at the math? The numbers paint a picture that cannot be avoided and needs to be changed.

For example, in the U.S., a millennial earns 20% less than what a baby boomer used to earn at the same age. Also, as of 2020, boomers and the silent generation held, get this, 70% of the country’s wealth. And these numbers are echoed across nations around the world. This big divide is causing a massive shift in our society, as many younger generations are saddled with burdens and difficult choices their parents and grandparents couldn’t dream of having to deal with. Later on, I’ll speak with Astra Taylor, a documentarian and activist who’s trying to raise the alarm about the sweeping impact debt has on young people.

People are not in debt because they live beyond their means. They’re in debt because they are denied the means to live.

NELUFAR: I’ll also talk to Jayathma Wickramanayake of Sri Lanka, who holds the title of U.N. Envoy on Youth. She’ll talk about what it will take to change a system that’s largely rigged to keep wealth in the hands of older generations.

We have to also find ways how to work through the systems to enter into the formal political arena if we are to sustain that change.

NELUFAR: But first: It’s one thing to talk about the wealth gap, and it’s another thing to see it firsthand. Perhaps the most acute example of this is in the housing market.


NELUFAR: Do you remember the ’50s and ’60s, with the TV shows like Leave It to Beaver or Bewitched, where the dad would come home from a day at the office and his wife would greet him with a warm smile and have dinner ready?

Hi there!


WOMAN: I thought we’d have a chocolate mousse for supper.

MAN: The wrong time of year. Moose are out of season.


NELUFAR: If you’re not laughing at this, you should be. The gender roles here are frankly ridiculous, but also because the idea of one guy working and supporting his entire family who live in this big house seems completely unrealistic. In fact, just owning any type of dwelling seems like a fantasy for many millennials and Gen Zers. To prove this, I recently hit the streets of London to do some house hunting, and I brought along a special guest.

FATEMA HEDAYAT: My name is Fatema Hedayat, and I do everything my sister tells me to.

NELUFAR: Fatema is 26 years old, just around the age when many young people a generation ago were starting to enter the housing market.

NELUFAR: So we’re driving around an area called Hampstead, and you and I have grown up in this area.


NELUFAR: Hampstead is a quintessentially beautiful part of North London. In the summer, we grew up going to the park, picking gooseberries and having snowball fights down the street in the winter. But it also has famous actors, writers and, well, rich people coming out of every mews and cul de sac.

FATEMA: It’s very…pretty. It’s very…what the rest of London tries to be, but doesn’t have the space to be. I feel like this was built before housing was an issue.


NELUFAR: As we drive around, it seems that parking was going to be as hard to find as an affordably priced flat.

NELUFAR: Oh, my God. This woman is going to attack me. I need to reverse! I’m going to hit the car. Please go back. Yes! Oh, my God! Wow.

NELUFAR: But eventually we found a spot. How long? Let’s just say an hour.

NELUFAR: Oh, my God, it’s so expensive.

NELUFAR: We walked down the fashionable street and eventually found the right house.

FATEMA: That’s like a mini Hogwarts.

NELUFAR: [LAUGHS] It looks like a castle. It’s got turrets!

NELUFAR: Our estate agent, or realtor, was already there waiting for us.


NELUFAR: I think Viv is inside.

ESTATE AGENT: Hello, hi! One sec. Come on in, come in.

FATEMA: Thank you!

NELUFAR: Viv is Vivienne Harris. She’s been selling property in London for decades. When we make it to the flat, we catch her on the phone, working on what sounds to me like made-up sums of money, but to her was an average day in selling houses and Hampstead.

VIVIENNE: You know, I mean, again, we’ve had something in Kenwood at over £6 million. They sold it for slightly under what I thought it was worth. So they were probably £100, £150 under where they should have been on price.


NELUFAR: But after a minute, she hung up and we started our tour.

NELUFAR: Oooh, which way should we go?

VIVIENNE: I’d start in the front, I think, probably the best place. And then we can work our way ’round.

NELUFAR: It’s got a…quirky central London charm. It’s about the size of three parking spaces, if we’re being generous. A tiny kitchen, the floors don’t lie flat, and it’s listed as a one or two bedroom, as if even the apartment layout can’t decide what it’s meant to be, a home or a shoe box. The previous owners have done an amazing job making every square foot count.

VIVIENNE: The people who lived here were very clever in terms of use of space, so they’ve made loads of storage. So in fact they’ve dropped the ceiling there so you can get your suitcases and things out there.

NELUFAR: Oh, wow. That’s actually quite a genius move.

NELUFAR: I looked over at Fatema. She seemed to be enjoying taking all of it — the little there was — in. The tour, and the engineering ingenuity of the previous owners to save space, are neat. But I can tell she’s holding back on getting her hopes up and for good reason. Viv hit us with a price tag.

VIVIENNE: It’s one of the most affordable that we have in Hampstead, and we’ve got some interest on it currently. Asking price is just under £600,595.

NELUFAR: For our American listeners, that translates to about $830,000. And listen to this: Today, buying an average house will cost most Britons about seven times the average salary. But in 1997, it was only about three and a half times. So it’s twice as hard to buy a house based on your wages. And for Fatema, buying becomes virtually impossible.

NELUFAR: Do you think you’ll be able to ever buy a home where you want, where you grew up, where you feel like you have roots and where you deserve to live? Do you think that you’ll be able to do that?

FATEMA: Oh, no. Just simply put, no. I enjoy every moment of living at home for that reason because I know that when I move out, I probably won’t be living in more central to London. I’ll have to move out, I’ll have to probably look outside London. So it’s a massive shame.

NELUFAR: And this is at the heart of the wealth gap today. It’s not just that young people like my sister don’t make as much as generations past, but they can’t afford the inflated prices of the houses in the neighborhoods they grew up in when they become adults. They don’t even see the way their parents lived as obtainable in their whole lifetime.

FATEMA: It is what it is, and this is how it is. And I don’t see it ever changing.

NELUFAR: I talked to Vivienne about this.

VIVIENNE: It’s really upsetting, you know, and I do feel sorry for the young people today. It’s really, really difficult. And unless you’ve got family members or an inheritance or somebody who is prepared to help you out, I honestly don’t know how young people get on the property ladder.

NELUFAR: And as the children of refugees, we did not have the bank of mum and dad to give us a helping hand. Successive governments have tried to reverse this trend. In the UK, they’ve trotted out things like making it more expensive for foreign investors to buy houses up, or things like part-buy, part-rent schemes to ease the home ownership gap — to little avail. Ultimately, Vivienne says, the heart of the problem comes down to supply, where older generations keep a hold of and buy more and more of the property in the UK. It is easy to get more wealth — if you have some to begin with. The writing, it seems, is on the wall. And so I’ve noticed that young adults have given up on traditional ways of experiencing wealth. They don’t want to climb the property ladder at all. They’ll settle for a couple of nice holidays abroad to put on the ’gram and some nice trainers or bags, which seems to annoy the boomers no end.

VIVIENNE: There is that tilt going on now, with a lot of the younger people that I talk to, go into rented properties saying, “You know what, we want to live a life. We want to go on holidays, we want to go out to eat” — especially after COVID — “we want to have a drink. We want to have fun with our friends. We’re not going to put a noose around our necks.”


NELUFAR: The fact that in just a generation home ownership has turned from being a prized nest egg to a noose around your neck is enormous, especially as it relates to growing wealth. For decades, home ownership was one of the most important ways people could start to build up equity and have a means of retirement or just possess a major asset should they encounter hard times. Generations now are being denied that safety net. Not so long ago, I bought Fatema a gag mug that said it was filled with billionaire tears. She loves it. Fatema sees the hashtag #EatTheRich not only as hilarious, but also downright righteous. They’re the ones who are benefiting from this huge generational wealth gap.

This brings us to our next guest, Astra Taylor. Finding a way for everyone to live a decent life has been at the core of Astra’s work. She’s a documentary filmmaker and organizes with something called the Debt Collective. That’s a group that, like a labor union, bands people together. But instead of fighting for better wages and working conditions, they go to battle to win better terms for debt cancelation for their members. Astra and I found ourselves agreeing a lot, but the conversation did go in an unexpected direction. I thought we were going to focus on how we should view the rich, but she wound up taking me a step back to focus on the bigger picture. Astra told me she can sympathize with Fatema and others who, unlike their parents, aren’t ever given a fighting chance to experience wealth.

ASTRA: We see, especially the younger generation, absolutely crushed by student loans. The younger generation is also crushed by medical debt. We see people, you know, putting basic necessities on credit cards. And so what you have is a society where an increasing number of people have negative net worth. Their dream, now, the American dream today, is to get out of debt. It’s to have zero dollars.

NELUFAR: Oh, my God. Is it really that bad?

ASTRA: It’s really that bad. So I’m going to be even more morbid. There was a statistic that came out before the pandemic that said the average American person dies $62,000 in debt. So this is really, I mean, this is a problem, too, because debt isn’t just, it’s not just money you owe. There’s all this research that shows it stresses you out. It makes people sicker, it has psychological effects. And the thing is, it didn’t used to be this way. What’s really unfair is that we have, you know, people who are going to college and they’re trying to get ahead in life and they’re graduating with $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, sometimes $100,000, sometimes $200,000 of debt. But their parents didn’t do that. There’s certain economic and social relations that were just part of the society at that time. So, you know, in terms of economic equality in the United States, it was just a way more economically egalitarian times. Like, union membership was way higher, you could go to college basically for free, or you could work a minimum job and pay for it. So I think it’s just important to actually depersonalize the debates between the generations and just look at the social conditions and what’s changed in the economy.

NELUFAR: Can you talk to me a little bit about how generational differences sit within this wheelhouse of wealth and cumulation — like, to be rich kind of means to be old, right?

ASTRA: Generally speaking, you know, the older generation has way more wealth. And that’s because they were able to buy property at a time when it was more affordable. And also their mortgages, their — so their loans were subsidized by government programs after the World War II and the New Deal period. And so then you have a younger generation that, just in general, the younger generation is more diverse racially, they’re poorer. And they just have, a lot of them have negative assets because they have student loan debt, because they have medical debt and because wages have stagnated. Again, this is the big problem, is that they’re also working at jobs where they’re just paid less. The value of what they earn is less than it used to be. So there’s a definite generational dimension. And what it means is, in the United States that we have really robust welfare programs for old people. So we have, again, Social Security. We have Medicaid. So basically health care for people who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. But what happens is that, you know, young people aren’t getting the benefit of these programs. So it’s not just about income and wealth. It actually becomes about political power. So for me, it’s about going after this economic system, and we can’t all be the rich.

NELUFAR: But here’s a little secret. By some standards, I’m one of them. I am “the rich.” I guess why this issue is so personal for me is that I feel guilt. Guilt that I hit the jackpot in a career that’s afforded me luxuries like buying a house, having a car and affordable debt that many of my friends, and even my own siblings, seem unlikely to obtain. Astra can relate to that feeling of having hit the jackpot. She grew up in a modest household in Arizona, but her economic status changed overnight when she married a literal rock star. Her husband was in the successful indie band Neutral Milk Hotel.


ASTRA: You know, I’m affluent too. The point is that people shouldn’t have to marry a rock star or happen to have bought Bitcoin at the right moment to be able to live a decent life. Right? These things were socially provisioned, and they can be again. Right. So I totally agree: We should define what, you know, being wealthy means for us personally, and what do I care about, what’s prosperity to me? But the fact is, if there’s some trillionaires out there determining, you know, whether or not we address climate change, that’s like an objective reality we have to contend with, and I think, try to resist and change.

NELUFAR: Astra, it could be that young people are spending all of their money on avocado toasts, on holidays to Dubai, on brand new iPhones. And they’re just not spending that money responsibly. They’re not saving, they don’t care to save, they’re just being frivolous. And it’s more important to look rich than to be economically safe.

ASTRA: Avocado toast is good! I mean, it tastes good. I love that avocado toast is the bane of your generation. I mean, I’m 40, so, you know, I’m too old for avocados, but I find it hilarious, because it’s these people who are acting like they’re so economically sensible, and they’re like, “Oh, silly you. If you just didn’t eat this toast, you’d have a house,” you know, and, “You’d have a good paying job.” And again, it ignores these macroeconomic conditions that people are in. And, you know, it’s just indisputable that when people put things on their credit cards, it’s generally necessities. Like a huge portion of credit card debt in the United States is medical bills. I want to ground us in a phrase, this is a phrase that we use at the Debt Collective: People are not in debt because they live beyond their means. They’re in debt because they are denied the means to live.

NELUFAR: What should the right balance be between the personal responsibility to make sure that you’re economically safe, and this concept of redistribution of wealth?

ASTRA: I think we have to begin by getting our heads around the degree of wealth inequality, not just in the United States, but in the world. Right? So, you know, people talk about the pandemic causing what’s called a K-shape recovery. And what that means is that people who are doing well before the pandemic are recovering, they’re doing great. Right? And the people who were struggling are being pushed further down. But there’s a catchphrase in the United States, and I hope it spreads, right, which is “abolish billionaires.” And what I like to say is, we need to abolish billionaires before they become trillionaires. And again, the problem isn’t just the obscenity of people having that much wealth while other people are literally struggling and are food insecure and housing insecure. It’s that that wealth gets you political power, and that is unjust, right? Redistribution is actually not that radical when there’s so much at the top. So we have to have some class war spirit in us. So there’s that famous quote, who was it? Warren Buffett, right? And he said, “There’s a class war, and my side is winning it.” Right? So it doesn’t, I don’t think it serves our purpose if we want to live in a more kind of just society, I don’t think I don’t think we can get around the fact that we’re going to have to confront this extreme inequality and say, “Look, you have to give some up, you have to redistribute, you have to share.” You know, and maybe, “This really isn’t yours to begin with.”

NELUFAR: How do we get, like, the old people to give us our stuff back?

ASTRA: We do need to tax it back, we need to claw back this wealth and then you redistribute it, in my opinion, by investing in social services. I would like to see supports for young families.


ASTRA: I would like to see supports for students. I would like to see public health care that is quality. I’d love to see investment in green infrastructure and green jobs. Right? Because this is something that, you know, young people will have to deal with more of the consequences of climate change than someone who’s in their 70s or 80s. That’s just a fact. So I think you redistribute through productive investment in the States. I’d also like to see, you know, in the state investing in worker-owned businesses and sort of other ways to restructure ownership so that wealth is spread around more instead of it being distorted by the shareholders.

NELUFAR: Astra Taylor, thank you soooooo much for talking to me.

ASTRA: Thank you. That was fun.

NELUFAR: For our final guest today, I wanted to zoom out and get a global perspective. So I figured, what better place to look than the United Nations? Jayathma Wickramanayake is a Sri Lankan who currently holds the title of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, amplifying the needs of young people to the global institution. She received that appointment back in 2017, when she was only 26 years old. As I dialed in to speak with the youth envoy, I felt the burden of the scolding lump of guilt I was carrying about all this. I’m really hoping Jayathma, who I’ve spoken to and worked with in the past, can help me quell its flames.

JAYATHMA: I think generally, there is an expectation that every new generation will lead a better life than the previous generation. I think it was the same from the silent generation to the baby boomers to Gen X to millennials and then to Gen Z. Even though sort of this expectation is there, I think particularly when it comes to the transition of wealth, but also I’d like to argue the transition of power from baby boomers to Gen X and Gen Z and millennials has not been very smooth. And definitely the wealth gap that exists between these different generations, particularly between baby boomers and millennials, is quite evident. And I also feel like there is a huge frustration, particularly among millennials and Gen Z, about the world that they are being sort of left with.

NELUFAR: So then…should we eat the rich?

JAYATHMA: [LAUGHS] I think this is also a massive conversation that needs to happen, I think, in between generations as well. There is a huge polarization between the generations, where young people are saying, “No you created a really terrible world for us. You left behind a really bad world in a very bad condition for us,” and the older generation’s saying, “Well, young people are only complaining and what are you doing about it?” I think the key is really to find where values align in both generations and to be able to have intergenerational conversations, intergenerational partnerships, that can lead us to create the world that is best for all generations. Because when Gen Z is out protesting every Friday calling for urgent climate action, they’re not asking for a better world just for themselves. They’re asking for a better world for all of us. So I think it’s very important that we try to move away from this polarization that sometimes also is being created through mainstream media, fake news and all of these misinformation campaigns in order to really understand who are our friends, who are our allies and how do we work across and among generations to bring about the change that we really need to bring?

NELUFAR: Let’s focus on the global south for a minute. Young people are like, “We don’t like the system. The system isn’t working.” The farmers in India, the climate change activists around the world, the way that large companies and governments often react to young advocates is almost dismissive. What do you suggest that young activists do to not only become these like, little, you know — just like, [MIMICS BABY TALK] “Oooh, look, you’re on the front cover of Time magazine.” [STERN VOICE] “Shh, now be quiet, the adults are talking.”

You know, like you must have seen it so many times in your career. I’d love for you to tell me maybe like a story or share something.

JAYATHMA: No, definitely. I think adults usually see young people and their activism as something that can be clapped at or, you know, you can pat the young person on the back, applaud their activism and then say, “OK, let the adults or, let those who hold the power decide what will actually happen with your demands or the ideas that you are proposing.” This has been happening for many years and many decades, but I think that more than millennials, Gen Zers are not ready to take this as an answer. And I think perhaps they’re more brave than we are in terms of also standing their ground and asking for accountability from those who hold power. I also see a fundamental shift, Nelufar, in the way that these two generations view power, and I think that baby boomers and the generations before us saw power as something that is very exclusive, that is limited to a few people, you know, exercised in secrecy behind closed doors, sort of men in suits making their decisions for the rest of the world. But Gen Z really sees power as something very fluid, very out there, very transparent. They see power in mobilization, not in institutionalization.

NELUFAR: In everything that Jayathma and me spoke about, this, to me, was everything. The wealth gap is absolutely intrinsic to the power gap between old and young people. But finally, the “I’m big, you’re small, I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it” situation is being disrupted. Time and again, millennials and Gen Zers have shown that they can mobilize for a call to action in the millions.

JAYATHMA: One of the things that I always talk to young people about when I meet them and we discuss about these frustrations is that when we embark on movements — as much as sometimes we can’t stand the systems, we have to also find ways how to work through the systems themselves. And as much as we sort of protest outside the parliaments or on the roads and demand for that change, we also need to make sure that we as a generation are empowered to enter into the formal political arena, run for political office, create that change within our political parties, within our own parliaments, municipalities, if we are to sustain that change.

NELUFAR: So now I want the gossip. I want to know of a real-life situation in which you encountered this generational gap.

JAYATHMA: One of the things that happened to me very early in my term, I was trying to get an event that I was doing accessible to people living with disabilities and people who speak other languages other than English. So I was pushing really hard. And one day I got a call from this very senior UN official who told me the same words, “You just got here. I was here for 30 years. And do you think by just pushing and writing emails, you will be able to create this change? Just try, keep trying, and maybe one day you will get there. But, you know, don’t try too much.” And he was really trying to sort of discourage me from pushing for that change. But I remember having some really powerful allies within the system itself who helped me bring about that change. And since then, we have always done events at the UN which are accessible to every young person in their diversity.

So I think by growing up in a world that is so affected by these multifaceted, multidimensional challenges, everywhere we look, we see crises, conflicts. Nel, I was born into a country affected by a 30-year-long war, and 20 years of my life, I lived in a war. I think it’s the same for you as well. I know many young people who have to live through that experience, not by choice, but because they were born into it. And we lived through the financial crises, we lived through a climate crisis. Now we are living through a pandemic. And I think this definitely gives us a lot of perspective on things that really matter in terms of the work we do and how important that every single thing we do has to be intersectional and has to be equally accessible to everyone around the world.

NELUFAR: What do you think that we, as young people, as millennials and Gen Z and Gen Alpha, because they’re coming, what should we all be doing to make the world more equitable generationally?

JAYATHMA: I think the answer in theory is quite simple, and I think the challenge is how to realize that in the real world. The answer for me is sharing power. I think the answer lies not in one generation, but the answer lies in little bits and pieces in different generations. We really need to come together and put those pieces of the puzzle together in order to find that magic answer that is going to solve the world’s problems. I also think that, as we see increased polarization among countries, between countries, within countries, across generations, between generations, within generations, we also need bridge builders. And I very strongly believe, for an example, my life’s purpose is to be a bridge builder, to bring the two extremes of a question together, to be able to go to one side, explain the plight of the other side, to be able to go to the other side, explain the concerns and the issues and the fears and the frustrations of the other side. Being able to bring both of these groups into one room, into one table, into one conversation, trying to find not the least common denominator, but the most common denominator, and to be able to — even if not find solutions, at least to create conditions to have a conversation about the solutions. This is my life’s purpose, and I am honored and privileged to do that from within the UN working in partnership hand in hand with young people around the world.

NELUFAR: Jayathma Wickramanayake, thank you so much for talking to me.

JAYATHMA: Thanks for having me, Nel.


NELUFAR: There’s no doubt in my mind that if we are to restore balance into the wealth system of our world, we have to fix the problem of wealth accumulation. And that means picketing, marching and sitting across tables, demanding change at our voting booths and desktops. The haves and the have nots, them and us. For far too long, wealth has been protected by laws which benefit the few at the expense of the many. And that dynamic is not sustainable. The rich influence power through their money, but we, the people, we can start to level the playing field using our collective voice to demand change to systems that condone economic injustice.

Whatever way you choose to measure it, polarization can only happen when you see another group that doesn’t look or sound like you and think of them as less than you. But maybe — and this absolutely comes out of everything my three guests have told me — maybe the problem of intergenerational polarization is one that we don’t have to look anywhere else but a mirror to overcome. We can all remember what it was like to be young. And if we’re lucky, we might see old age. Drawing from that, we need to show more empathy and understanding of the needs of those groups who we once were and one day will become. I feel like we need to be more giving and more demanding of these other versions of ourselves. Maybe then we’ll be able to have more meaningful dialogue.


That’s our episode. What do you think? Do you still want to eat the rich, or are you ready to break bread with them? Tweet us at @DohaDebates, or me, I’m @Nelufar, and I’m always super interested to hear from you. Here’s one more request: Please write us a review of the show. I know, I know, you don’t have time, but it really helps spread the word about what we’re doing.
Course Correction is written and produced by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance come from Foreign Policy, with producers Sarah Kendal, Zamone Perez and Rosie Julin. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.