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Which Generation Has the Most Student Debt?

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This fall, 2020 college graduates will start paying back student loans, joining some 44 million Americans who owe an estimated $1.7 trillion in student debt, something millennials have been struggling with, as will Gen Zers in the near future.

They aren’t the only ones. A report released Tuesday by Fidelity Investments shows that overall student debt has only increased during the pandemic, regardless of generation or occupation, with baby boomers bearing the biggest burden.

Related: Americans With Student Debt Owe $24,155 on Average

In part because of Parent Plus loans secured for their children, the amount of debt boomers owed increased by 33% over 2019, based on data derived from more than 250,000 loans reported by users of Fidelity’s Student Debt Tool.

Fidelity analysts also found that employees working in the health care and social assistance industry were paying the most — $801 a month, or about $100 a month more than the nearest sector and a 10% increase over 2019.

“Health care workers are on the front line every day taking care of us during this pandemic, but also the ones struggling the most with student debt,” Asha Srikantiah, head of Fidelity Investments’ student debt program, said in a statement.

“Student debt impacts everyone, young and old, as well as workers in all industries, and given the heightened stress we are all experiencing, it’s important to recognize how tightly tied financial stress is to emotional well-being.”

Srikantiah said Fidelity’s research showed that taking on debt was one of the most negative events when it comes to financial wellness. Paying off debt is one of the most positive, both financially and in terms of health, work and life overall.

Student Debt Impact on Retirement

Fidelity’s data showed that many individuals were delaying contributing to retirement or were taking out loans against their 401(k), which it said meant they were borrowing against their future to pay for the past.

The share of participants who have an outstanding loan against their 401(k) rose significantly in 2020, to 23% from 13.9% in 2019. This was attributable in part to changes to retirement withdrawals enacted in April as a result of the CARES Act.

Fidelity noted that this increase was concerning, as these loans can very negatively affect 401(k) balances, particularly among younger retirement savers, who have a longer time horizon and greater potential in their early years to save more.

The CARES Act legislation makes now an ideal time for employers to continue or introduce a student debt repayment benefit, according to Fidelity. Payments made to federal student loans by year-end go directly toward the principal balance.

Related: How Employers Are Addressing the Student Debt Explosion

“What we’ve learned is that growing numbers of companies are realizing the impact student debt relief can have on overall financial wellness,” Srikantiah said.

Fidelity introduced a Student Debt Benefits program to other employers in 2018, which allows companies the ability to design their own program that best serves the unique needs of their specific workforce.

“This can in turn have a positive impact from a business perspective in a host of ways,” Srikantiah said. “For example, early adopters of the benefit at other companies have reported seeing a 52% reduction in turnover.”

She based this figure on Fidelity’s analysis of 24 early adopters of the program, representing some 100,000 participants, calculated from January 2019 to January 2020.


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