Will You Be Wealthy? Depends on What You Did in Your 20s

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Maybe you should think twice about spending your 20s teaching English in the Burmese jungle. A new study by the Digitas advertising agency, entitled "Affluence in America: The New Consumer Landscape," finds that a "major predictor of wealth, ... is one's earning a high income in his or her twenties."

So what exactly is a "high income" in Great Recession America? According to Digitas, the currently benchmark for affluence is an annual salary of $200,000. And those who have made it into the six-digits club before they reach 35 "have a far greater chance of eventually crossing the golden threshold" later in life, if they haven't already done so.

Well, duh? But the conclusion that high-paying jobs lead to higher-paying jobs is not the most striking aspect of the Digitas study. What sticks out most is that mobility is a far greater challenge than perhaps ever before in American history, because wealth inequality has become so extreme. If you don't start with a sprint, it may no longer be possible to catch up by the middle of the race, when the other guy is on steroids.

And the numbers presented in the Digitas study make this dynamic plain: The top 1 percent of the country controls nearly 40 percent of the wealth. "We're at levels of income inequality that we haven't seen since the end of the gilded age," said Columbia University sociologist professor Shamus Rahman Khan. "We're about as unequal as we've ever been."

It's too soon to know whether the excesses of the bling age will be looked upon much in the way we now tour the mansions once owned by robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt. But advertisers like Digitas say that marketers should start to take note of the new landscape if they haven't already.

"Before the downturn, luxury marketers embraced the concept of 'mass affluence.' Buoyed by fatter stock portfolios and exploding equity in real estate -- and encouraged by easy credit -- a larger portion of the population considered itself wealthy enough to buy luxury goods and services," the study says.

"Marketers, in turn, cast a wider net, creating more affordable 'luxury products for a larger market. In 2011, however, in the wake of a massive reset, it appears that mass affluence may be a thing of the past -- and that luxury marketers should reconsider how their products appeal to elite consumers who increasingly value high quality and exclusivity."

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