Soaring student loans and the reluctance of Millennials to own houses and cars threaten to define the entire generation and put them behind - as a whole - throughout their lives, says Amy Crews Cutts, chief economist at Equifax.
Despite signs of a slowly improving economy - and hopes for gains in 2015 - 20-24 year olds are entering the worst economy since the Depression.
"People coming out of college are not getting jobs often for a couple of years and as a result their lifetime earnings are down. [As a result] at every stage of life, they'll be behind previous generations," she said. "They don't have jobs yet so they can't even collect unemployment.
"This is not an owning generation. This is a renting generation," she said. "The question is how far do they push out buying the house, having kids and so on?"
Cutts was the keynote speaker this week at the Financial Services Collections & Operational Risk Conference in Las Vegas. She discussed the economy and how it compares to seven years ago when the U.S. entered a recession. She also spoke of projections for solid 3% economic growth in 2015 and expectations for employment to continue rising next year.
Housing is the wildcard, she said. "Will consumers want to get back into the housing market? Will people again believe it's important to go out and get a house. I hope so because [the reluctance to buy houses] has held back the economy," she said.
Student loan debt threatens the hoped-for housing restart. In the third quarter of 2008, student loan debt totaled approximately $638 billion. In the first quarter of this year, the total jumped to $1.2 trillion.
"About 74% of private student loans are in repayment, 2% are in forbearance, 2% are in a grace period so they get some time off before being required to pay and 22% are in deferment, meaning they are still in school," she said.
Cutts said "uncertainty" best describes the economic picture headed into 2015. It's expected, for one, that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates. Such negativity, in the eyes of consumers, will hit people at a time that many are "on the fence about how [financially] happy they are."
But there are other important factors that are impacting the economy and will do so for untold years to come.
"The front wave of baby boomers are starting to retire. Meanwhile, the 85 and older group is getting larger and larger. When we created Social Security, you would retire at 65 and die at 70. Now we have five generations often being supported by two," she said.
Consumers as a whole have become much more conservative fiscally since the recession. "People have changed fundamentally the way they view their cash. For those who have extra cash, they're holding it that way - in cash. They're choosing more mutual funds over stocks," Cutts added.