If the media coverage is to be believed, the so-called millennials are the most victimised generation in living memory.
This cohort, roughly defined as those born between 1985 and 2000, are perceived (by millennials themselves, at least) as facing a uniquely bleak financial future, blighted by high property prices and student debt, low wages and an ultra-competitive labour market.
But if there is any truth in this at all, it would appear to be a first-world problem. In the emerging world, it seems, millennials are doing so well it is their parents’ generation that is being eclipsed.
In a swath of major emerging markets, the gross income of 25 to 29 year-olds is now markedly higher than the national average.
The discrepancy is widest in the Philippines, where 25-29 year-olds, on average, pocket 19.7 per cent more than the average Filipino, but the percentage gap is also in double figures in China, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Mexico, as the first chart shows.
Smaller, but still meaningful, differentials also exist in Thailand, Brazil, Argentina and Russia, with only South Korea in the EM world bucking the trend (and some would class it as developed, anyway), according to data from Euromonitor International, crunched by Capital Group, the US investment house.
Admittedly this definition of “gross income” does not just include salaries but also takes into account investments, remittances and benefits. Millennials may be among the bigger recipients of benefits, at least if they have children, but this would probably be more than offset by the reduced ability of (mostly) mothers to earn a full-time salary.
Remittances and income from investments would be more likely to flow to older segments of the population, those who have children working overseas or have built up a meaningful pot of wealth.
Moreover, the plight of emerging market 20-somethings contrasts sharply with their peers in the west. As the chart shows, 25-29 year-olds in the US receive a gross income 11.5 per cent below the national average, and those in the UK fall 3.6 per cent short. German millennials do best of the lot, luxuriating in an income gap of essentially zero.
As to why young people in emerging markets are faring so well, analysts universally point to dramatic improvements in education in recent years.
“It’s mostly down to education. If you look at the education of people in China or India compared to their parents or grandparents they are much more likely to have a degree or at least some form of higher qualification,” says Martyn Hole, investment specialist at Capital Group.
Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital, a Moscow-based investment bank, says “many 54-65 year-olds won’t be as educated, on average, as 25-34 year-olds now.”
Although the same will be true in developed markets, education levels have improved far faster in EMs, albeit from a far lower base.
“Back in 1980, only around 30-45 per cent of [school-age] Brazilians were at secondary school. So over half of people now aged 65 would be [educated to] primary school age only. I’m sure that’s true of many 55 year-olds too,” says Mr Robertson.
“In Russia the current 55-64 year-old cohort was well educated but in the communist ethos, not in market economics. Now some young people will have degrees, and be better educated than the average.”
Mr Hole believes the trend of younger workers out-earning their older peers has further to run, rather than being a one-off adjustment, given the emphasis parents are increasingly putting on education.
This can be seen clearly in a country such as South Korea, where parents spend so much on private education that “it’s almost a one-child policy” because the cost of educating two children in this manner would be prohibitively high for most families, Mr Hole says. But even Brazil, on the other side of the planet, “has hundreds of private schools”.
“In some of these [EM] countries the number of people going to college is still far lower than in the west, so I would expect the trend to continue for some time,” he adds.
Some believe demographic trends may also be fuelling the higher earnings of younger workers.
Mr Robertson says that in countries such as Russia and China “the number of 15-24 year-olds is shrinking relative to 10 years ago”, meaning the younger people who are in the workforce are more in demand and can bid up their wages.
This is certainly the case in Russia, where the number of 18-29 year-olds has fallen from 28.4m in 2010 to 24.4m in 2015, according to data from Euromonitor, while the number of 30-59 year-olds has edged up to 63.1m.
This trend is likely to continue, with an average of 1.33m people a year in the 9-17 age cohort, compared with 2.03m per year for 18-29 year-olds (but 1.73m/year for 0-8 year-olds).
In China, despite the introduction of the one-child policy in 1980, this trend has yet to emerge. The country has 21.4m people per year in the 18-29 age group, unchanged from 2010 and a little higher than for those aged 30-59. However, it is just a matter of time, with China having just 16.3m people a year in the 9-17 cohort.
Nevertheless, Mr Hole says Capital Group has heard of “some very serious [labour] shortages”.
“We have talked to some engineering companies operating in China. They had to increase wages by 10-15 per cent to stop people going to another company” — a trend he says is also evident in some consumer-related sectors.
Mr Hole postulates that China may now have reached the “Lewis turning point”, where the once-inexhaustible pool of surplus rural labour dries up and wages rise rapidly.
This raises a couple of interesting issues. The outsized income of millennials should be good news for companies selling to younger adults. But if part of the reason these people are earning so much is that there are fewer of them, the benefit is negated to some degree.
Secondly, it raises the prospect that today’s well-paid millennials will see their relative wages fall as they age and younger, smarter workers are more in demand — the opposite to the traditional model in the developed world and something that may prove psychologically difficult for some.
Mr Robertson does not believe that millennials’ earnings will fall (as “they won’t become less educated as they get older”) but adds that “demographics and improving education mean 10 year-olds in these countries have a lot to look forward to”.
Jan Dehn, head of research at Ashmore Investment Management, cautions that the income data may not be entirely reliable, given the preponderance of informal, unrecorded labour markets in many emerging countries.
Nevertheless, for him, the rise of the millennials is vindication of his faith in the emerging world.
Mr Dehn believes that, over time, income per head in emerging markets should converge on levels in the developed world. As the second chart shows, for decades there was no sign of this.
Mr Dehn attributes this to the Cold War, when both sides had their client “tinpot dictators”, which led to widespread corruption and intermittent coups, sapping growth.
Even in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, growth per head was no faster than in the west, as many countries gradually ditched their dictatorships and built institutions. As a result, the political, social and economic backdrop only became conducive to strong growth this century, when EMs have started to converge on the west.
Mr Dehn makes the point that 25-29 year-olds are the first generation to have been born in the post-Cold War era and to have benefited from the education and employment opportunities that have emerged since the millennium.
“This is the first generation of people who have come through a more stable, prosperous economic environment and stable politics and [EM countries] can attract foreign capital, so they can get good jobs,” he says.
As to whether the millennials will prosper or decline from here, Mr Dehn adds: “In relative terms they should get poorer with every generation, but they should get wealthier in absolute terms.”
泰国、巴西、阿根廷和俄罗斯的这种收入差虽然更小，但依然显著，在新兴市场世界中，唯有韩国与这种趋势不符（不过有些人会把韩国界定为发达国家）。以上数据由欧睿国际(Euromonitor International)发布，美国投资机构资本集团(Capital Group)编制。
莫斯科投行晋新资本(Renaissance Capital)的全球首席经济学家查尔斯?罗伯逊(Charles Robertson)说：“平均而言，现在许多54-65岁的人的教育水平不如25-34岁的人。”
霍尔假定，中国眼下可能达到了“刘易斯拐点”(Lewis Turning Point)，曾一度取之不尽的农村剩余劳动力池正在干涸，工资水平迅速上升。
安石投资管理公司(Ashmore Investment Management)的研究主管简?德恩(Jan Dehn)警告称，考虑到未记录在案的非正规劳动力市场在很多新兴国家十分发达，收入数据可能并不完全可信。