Today’s economy is a choose-your-own-adventure situation.
Inflation is high, but so are wages. Stocks are down in 2022, but still up substantially since 2020. Recession warnings abound, but consumers are still spending like mad. But despite all the positive signs, the economy kind of sucks for almost everyone—even Cardi B is feeling the pinch, arguing with Janet Yellen about whether a recession is underway.
It’s a far cry from 2021, when it seemed like President Joe Biden had cracked the economic comeback code following the coronavirus recession. A third round of stimulus checks left Americans sitting atop a whopping $4.2 trillion in savings and supercharged a jobs boom that led to record-low unemployment rates. Employees have been winning the labor market as an average of 4 million workers have quit their jobs every month for roles offering better pay. Flush with cash from stimulus and higher wages, Americans unleashed a major shopping spree, sending the U.S. into its biggest economic expansion since 1984.
But every rose has its thorn, and in 2022, people are still waiting for the couch they ordered months ago thanks to an ongoing supply shortage, which lockdowns in China and the Russia-Ukraine war just exacerbated. As Friday’s CPI print makes clear, the biggest pain point is inflation, which keeps on setting fresh 40-year highs.
There are still some people who are winners in the crazy economy, though. Maybe you’re one of them.
The ‘optimism gap’
For much of the last year, as the booming economy coincided with several unusual trends like the Great Resignation, a strange thing happened: Despite the economy outperforming expectations, consumer sentiment dropped to a decade low last month. But in the same surveys, Americans report they are doing fine themselves. This is called the “optimism gap,” and economists have puzzled over it for decades.
As inflation continues to soar and a recession looms, that optimism will likely start to wane. Yellen might have decades of economic experience, but Cardi B definitely has a point.
Inflation is gobbling up some of those Great Resignation raises, and a lot of Americans are just poorer than they used to be. Given that inflation accelerated to 8.6% just this week, it’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be abating anytime soon. The Fed is trying to cool things down by raising rates, but that is prompting widespread fears of recession.
Two clear groups of Americans are beating the high prices and the coming downturn.
Homeowners and job-hoppers are winning the economy
The Americans sitting pretty in the economy right now have benefited from the pandemic’s two biggest booms: housing and jobs.
Remote workers drove housing prices skyward after fleeing cramped city apartments for the spacious suburbs, fueling what Housingwire lead analyst Logan Mohtashami described to Fortune as a “savagely unhealthy” housing market.
But it’s made homeowners richer than ever, with nearly $10 trillion in equity available. By the end of last year, 42% of homeowners were considered equity rich (their mortgages were half or less than half of their home value), compared to the 30% of homeowners who were at the end of 2020.
Workers who joined the Great Resignation are also rolling in the dough if they were lucky enough to receive pay bumps greater than even 40-year-high inflation. “We’re going to continue to see pretty strong wage growth this year,” Erik Lundh, principal economist at the Conference Board, told Fortune at the end of January. “It’s not going away.”
A Conference Board survey of nearly 2,600 U.S. office workers found that nearly a third of those who began a new job during the pandemic are earning over 30% more. Even the working class is benefiting from higher wages, with Costco, Amazon, and Target raising minimum wages over the past year.
Gen Zers in particular are cashing in on a job market rife with record openings, especially for entry-level jobs. The labor shortage has spurred a demand for talent that has enabled new graduates to be more selective and demanding when choosing a job.
Renters, the rich, and the poor are losing the economy
For the rest of America, an overheated economy isn’t feeling so hot. Just ask the aspiring homeowners trying to buy a house during a time when 96% of regional housing markets are overvalued, per data Moody’s Analytics pulled for Fortune. With median home sale prices hitting record highs, the dream of middle-class homeownership no longer exists.
They’re instead stuck shelling out for all-time high rents, which are responsible for 40% of May’s CPI read. It’s especially bad for urbanites in places like New York City, who now need to earn $160,000 to afford median one-bedroom rent in Manhattan.
But it’s the lower-income households who are feeling the burn of inflation the most, because they spend a greater share of their total spending on necessities. Both Kohl’s and Walmart noted that customers were starting to reel in their spending by shifting to more affordable alternatives or avoiding some purchases altogether.
Tanya Barham, a single mother based in Portland, Ore., made the decision to cancel her streaming subscriptions in order to help offset rising food costs. “We don’t live an extravagant life by any means. We’re solidly middle-class,” Barham told Fortune in May. But rising inflation has forced her, and many others, to take a hard look at their budgets and make changes.
Inflation has left no social class untouched, making Americans worth less than they were six months ago. The Federal Reserve’s latest report on the Financial Accounts of the United States found that household net worth fell by $500 billion from January to March due to a drop in investment value. If it weren’t for the homeowning winners raking in equity, that wealth drop would have been even more drastic.
It’s not good news for anyone, especially the rich, who have more money to lose. As both crypto and stocks plunge, the world’s 500 richest people lost $1 trillion as of May. Even retirees with fat savings are watching inflation eat away at their nest eggs, prompting some to consider returning to work.
But inflation hasn’t prevented the rich from splurging. Consistent spending keeps driving up inflation and the Fed to push up interest rates, which could send us into a recession. And then, even the economic winners end up losing.
Are you a single adult who lives alone? Fortune wants to hear how inflation is affecting your budget. Email reporter Alicia Adamczyk to share your story for a future article.