A Yoke for the White Collar

A younger New Yorker could be forgiven for running up debt: Real wages for 20-something professionals in New York haven’t changed since the early 1970s. At the same time, the number of college grads competing for white-collar jobs has increased—as has the cost of everything from real estate to beer to MetroCards.

In 1970, the median annual wage for New Yorkers in their 20s was $35,385, according to a census sample analysis by Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge published in the Gotham Gazette. In 2005, that median wage, adjusted for inflation, had decreased to $32,597.

In 1970, 19.5 percent of New Yorkers in their 20s had college degrees, according to the analysis. By 2005, that percentage had more than doubled. By 2006, roughly one in three New Yorkers 25 and older had at least a college degree, according to N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

For younger college grads, the job market has become ever more competitive and the monetary rewards stagnant.

And yet they come.

Roughly 1.8 million New Yorkers—more than 20 percent of the population—were between the ages of 20 and 35 in 2006, according to census estimates. In Manhattan alone, that age range included about 29 percent of the population. They fill apartments to the brim and they hustle through midtown, downtown, our town, trying to chomp a slice of an ever-dwindling pie.

Indeed, the vacancy rate for larger apartment buildings in Manhattan will likely end 2008 at below 3 percent, according to a May forecast by brokerage Marcus & Millichap. And, as this column has noted, more and more renters are younger—and more of them are getting help from their parents, whether as lease co-signers or as, quite simply, the monthly rent-check writers.

And as for buying instead of renting? For many of these eager-beaver 20-somethings with B.A.’s and B.S.’s, much of the city’s housing market remains prohibitively expensive. The average Manhattan apartment cost $1.72 million by April 2008, according to appraisal firm Miller Samuel. (It was just under $507,000 a decade earlier.) In the boroughs, it isn’t much cheaper: The average Queens home cost $535,308 by April.

Even after a 20-something meets the housing challenge, however creatively, he or she must then contend with the rising costs of the slightly-less-than-essentials, from transportation to health care to leisure to student-loan repayments to … everything! All against a hard backdrop of stagnant wages and increased white-collar job competition.

Which probably helps explain the rising levels of debt, here and elsewhere.

In 2003, the amount of outstanding debt nationwide due to revolving credit, which springs mostly from credit cards, was $771 billion. Five years later, that amount had ballooned to $957 billion.

The Federal Reserve, which tracks the debt, doesn’t have numbers specific to New York City. But in a city where a square foot in an average apartment can command over $1,200, and $2,000 a month gets you a one-bedroom walk-up with water bugs (if you’re lucky), it’s safe to assume that debt runs rather high for the younger New Yorkers among us.

tacitelli@observer.com A Yoke for the White Collar