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Household debt falls sharply among younger Americans: study

A "for sale" sign is seen outside a home in New York in this June 19, 2012 file photo.

SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

The recession had a strong impact on young Americans who saw the credit crisis up close: they are taking on less credit card debt, delaying plans to buy homes and owning fewer cars, according to a study released on Thursday.

From 2007 to 2010, the median debt of U.S. households headed by people aged 35 and younger fell by 29 per cent – from $21,912 (U.S.) to $15,473 – while debt of older Americans fell by just 8 per cent, to $30,070, according to a Pew Research Center study titled "Young Adults After the Recession."

Residential property accounts for at least three-quarters of average American debt, so much of the drop may be connected to a decrease in home ownership. The number of Americans under 35 who own their primary residence dropped to 34 per cent in 2011 from 40 per cent in 2007, Pew said. Meanwhile, the percentage of homeowners over age 35 fell by 2 percentage points to 72 per cent.

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"As younger people invest in education and wait longer to enter the work force or start families, that may mean they will wait longer to buy homes," said Richard Fry, a senior economist at Washington-based Pew and the author of the study.

Young adults are cutting back on credit card usage as well. Young households with credit card debt fell by 10 percentage points to 39 per cent between 2007 and 2010.

Car ownership is an area in which younger Americans also cut back. The number of households led by adults under 35 with auto debt fell by 12 per cent between 2007 and 2010. The typical outstanding car loan fell to $10,000 from $13,000.

As unemployment drove many young people to return to school, student debt increased during the recession. By 2010, 40 per cent of households headed by young adults had student debt, up from 34 per cent in 2007 and 26 per cent in 2001.

Squeezed by increasing student debt, younger Americans are cutting debt in other areas. Their median level of debt fell to $15,473 in 2010 from $17,938 in 2010, according to the study.

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