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From ALICEs to geriatric millennials: Your complete guide to America's weird new tribes

Erin Snodgrass,Jacob Zinkula   

From ALICEs to geriatric millennials: Your complete guide to America's weird new tribes

Can you spot the difference between an ALICE and a HENRY? Are you too much of a dingus to know your DINKs? Would you ever consider joining the FIRE movement?

These days, coverage of the US economy is chock-full of jargony acronyms and descriptors for demographic cohorts. Some have been around for years, or at least represent groups that have long been relevant. Others are brand new — and recent economic developments, as well as the influence of platforms like TikTok, help explain why certain terms have spiked in popularity lately.

Kory Kantenga, a senior economist at LinkedIn, pointed to the "Great Resignation" — which some have rebranded as the "Great Reshuffle" — as a turning point. Coined in 2021 by Anthony Klotz, then an associate professor of management at Texas A&M, the term helped open the door for a larger conversation about Americans' jobs and finances.

"The Great Reshuffle led to many of us rethinking where, how, and why we work," Kantenga said. "While many aspects of the Great Reshuffle have faded, the paradigm shift of talking more openly about work has endured. That change, along with the proliferation of viral content, has likely supported the emergence of viral workplace terms."

The terms DINK (double income, no kids), FIRE (financial independence, retire early), and HENRY (high earner, not rich yet), meanwhile, appear to have originated in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. They've been making a comeback as economic conditions have made them more relevant. DINK, for example, is used in part to highlight the financial benefits of not having children. As the costs of raising children have ballooned, the DINK lifestyle has started to resonate with couples.

It's difficult to pinpoint just how many Americans fall into each category — they're generally not officially tracked. But the terms' recent popularity suggests people want to understand how they fit into the broader economy beyond standard measurements. Together, they offer a glimpse into different groups working to get by. "I think part of why they've become popular again is because these acronyms succinctly describe various forms of financial limbo that, until relatively recently, weren't well represented in society," said Eric Anicich, an associate professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Keeping track of them all is crucial to understanding how the system works, but it can get confusing. Henry, a geriatric millennial ALICE and half a POLK with his wife, Alice, feels ostracized from his DINK, DIPS, FIRE, and HENRY friends, especially since his peak boomer parents are leaving him no inheritance. What?

To make your life easier, Business Insider has compiled a glossary of terms, from the frequently used to the more exotic. Say hello to your new economic ABCs.

ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed

ALICEs are stuck in no-man's-land. Their incomes put them above the federal poverty level — $31,200 for a family of four, or $15,060 for an individual — and too far afield of the threshold to qualify for government benefits like food stamps, rental assistance, or Medicaid. But their earnings aren't high enough to shield them from financial precarity, and the rising costs of living expenses like food and housing over the past few years haven't helped.

Take Sarah, a single mother of two who works one full-time job and two part-time jobs. While she's employed, her ability to bring in enough money to support her family is a source of never-ending stress.

"Every month is a struggle to make sure all the bills are paid — there's never enough for savings," she said. "My car loan, my car insurance, rent, and food take up almost my entire paycheck." (Sarah asked to use a pseudonym to prevent identification by a prior partner she said was abusive.)

Sarah earned less than $60,000 last year across her jobs. In the past, she qualified for some government benefits like SNAP. Now she's eligible only for some rent assistance through a state program. But that, too, is uncertain: She said she was "dangerously close" to losing the aid because her income is too high.

ALICEs tend to be older or younger workers, and while they're represented across racial groups, they're more likely to be Black or Hispanic. And data from the nonprofit organization United Way, which coined the term in 2009, show that about a third of the population fell below the ALICE line in 2021. (This also includes people in poverty.)

DINK: Double Income, No Kids

Perhaps the most popular acronym of them all (and the most satisfying to say aloud) is DINK, an umbrella term for couples who are certain they'll never have kids, those who don't want kids at the moment, and those who feel their economic standing dictates whether they can have kids. There are even offshoots, like DINKWAD, which throws a dog into the mix.

The term was around in the 1980s, when the yuppie — an old-school economic nickname in its own right — dominated the culture. In a 1987 article, the Los Angeles Times used "DINK" to describe a new class of child-free baby boomers relishing their wealth. Think Big and Carrie from "Sex in the City" nursing endless martinis and stocking closets full of designer shoes.

Nowadays, DINKs are having a moment as millennials and Gen Zers increasingly opt to forgo kids amid shifting attitudes toward parenthood, economic uncertainty, the climate crisis, and rising childcare costs. And many are reaping the financial benefits.

Brenton and Mirlanda Beaufils are a married couple in their early 30s who work in real estate and property management in Dallas. The influencer couple bring home six figures each year and have no plans to give up the DINK lifestyle anytime soon. They said they were taking the time to do all the things they wouldn't be able to do if they had children.

"We have a good amount of disposable income," Mirlanda said. "Last weekend, we went to Neiman Marcus and bought ourselves some fun stuff."

DIPS and POLK: Double Income, Public School; Parents of Little Kids

BI's Katie Notopoulos coined "DIPS" and "POLKs" earlier this year, arguing that American parents are economically divided by one key factor: whether their kids are old enough for a free public education or still require expensive childcare.

Families with young kids are burdened by a childcare system that requires working parents to shell out thousands of dollars a month for day care or a nanny. But as kids age into public school, many parents finally begin to save some cash.

Paige Connell, a married mother of four children under 7, has seen the divide play out under her roof.

Connell and her husband live outside Boston. They have two kids who attend public school and two younger children who still require childcare, which costs the family about $60,000 a year.

Connell, an operations manager, and her husband, a first responder, make a "decent" salary for living in Massachusetts, she said. But they still spend 20% to 30% of their income on childcare.

She acknowledged that older kids are still expensive — hers attend camps and extracurricular activities. But childcare makes the difference. "We talk about our life in terms of what comes after childcare," Connell said. "How will we invest this money? What will this money go toward?"

FIRE: Financial Independence, Retire Early

Chrissy Arsenault, a 31-year-old marketing director in Colorado, has pursued a FIRE lifestyle since her mid-20s, when she and her husband learned about the movement online. Over the past several years, they've grown their combined net worth to roughly $800,000. Arsenault said their goal is to have about $2.5 million in total investments and retire in 10 to 15 years.

Generally, people who've embraced the FIRE movement are trying to grow their savings so they can achieve financial freedom and retire as early as possible — though some choose to keep working. Many FIRE advocates trace the movement's philosophy to the 1992 best-selling book "Your Money or Your Life." As many Americans struggle to save for retirement — and as Social Security's future remains precarious — the FIRE movement offers a potentially lucrative blueprint for people who crave security and control over their finances.

For Arsenault, retiring early is about having freedom at an earlier age. "Retiring at 65-plus years old just doesn't sound appealing," she said, summing up the couple's financial strategy as "spend less, make more, and invest more."

HENRY: High Earner, Not Rich Yet

A defining trait of a HENRY is their desire to no longer be a HENRY.

HENRYs are keyed into their finances and always looking to reach the next financial tier. The term seems to have originated in 2003, but today's HENRYs are typically between 27 and 42, live in metropolitan areas, and make $80,000 to $500,000, depending on where they live.

That may seem like a lot of money to the average Joe, but HENRYs often don't feel wealthy, and caution around spending and saving is common. (The precise parameters of a HENRY are difficult to define and appear to be based more on vibes than a specific tax bracket.)

Take Christopher Stroup, a 33-year-old financial advisor in Santa Monica, California, who earned roughly $130,000 last year. Stroup said he didn't feel rich. He's still paying down his student debt while trying to reach his savings goals for making a down payment on a home, starting a family, and retiring. He said he sometimes joked that he felt like he'd need to save $250,000 to buy a home or start a family — but he could pick only one.

"I wouldn't consider myself rich yet because I haven't achieved any of those goals," he said. "Versus the traditional arc of life, I feel behind financially."

HIFI: High Income, Financially Insecure

HIFI is the latest acronym to join the club. Sherwood News described it as representing people who make good money but remain financially insecure because of overspending.

HIFIs are characterized by their steep spending and obsession with items and experiences that exude luxury. Pandemic stimulus checks, online shopping, and "buy now, pay later" options have helped fuel HIFIs' spending in recent years.

But even with government checks long gone, and as inflation and the cost of living have risen, HIFIs haven't necessarily curbed their affluent spending — leaving a sharp divide between their aspirations and their financial realities.

Geriatric millennial: The oldest members of the millennial generation

If you're in your late 30s or early 40s, hearing someone use the word "geriatric" to describe you might make you want to curl into the fetal position. Don't fear — it's meant to distinguish between two groups in a relatively young generation. Millennials are generally considered to be those born between 1981 and 1996. But the youngest and oldest are in quite different life stages.

In a 2021 Medium post, Erica Dhawan defined "geriatric millennials" as millennials born in the early 1980s. Dwahan, who has spent years researching ways to encourage better collaboration in the workplace, previously told Business Insider that geriatric millennials were well suited to working with both younger and older generations.

The past two decades have been a financial roller coaster. Many geriatric millennials were in the early stages of their careers during the Great Recession, which hampered their employment and earnings. In a 2018 report, researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said they found that the wealth of millennials born in the 1980s was 34% below what was expected based on prior generations' experiences.

But in recent years, many geriatric millennials have seen their wealth surge thanks to rising home and stock prices. While some younger millennials feel boxed out of the housing market because of high prices and interest rates, elder ones are more likely to already own a home — setting themselves up for future wealth creation.

Peak boomer: Baby boomers born between 1959 and 1964

Peak boomer — a once disparaging term for someone displaying comical levels of "old person" behavior — has come to mean something new as the youngest members of America's largest generational cohort reach retirement age.

By the end of 2024, all baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — will be 60 or older. The increase in retirees is likely to be a significant burden on the US economy that could last decades. But for many in this "peak boomer" group, their biggest concern is their own financial security.

A recent study found that more than half of the 30 million peak boomers staring down retirement had $250,000 or less in assets. The analysis, which looked at Federal Reserve and University of Michigan Health and Retirement study data, suggested these people would be forced to rely primarily on Social Security income. But that program's fate is increasingly uncertain, and a reduction in benefits could leave millions of older Americans in dire straits.

Jewel Benjamin, 64, retired from her job as a Georgia law-enforcement officer in 2018 — but not by choice. An injury forced her out of the workforce at 59, much earlier than she had planned. Retiring early meant Benjamin had to wait two years before she could start drawing from Social Security.

These days, Benjamin receives Social Security benefits and money from her retirement plan each month. Those payments still leave her living "paycheck to paycheck," she said, as she deals with medical bills and other living expenses. (Many peak boomers are also considered ALICEs, underscoring the intersectionality of some of these demographic groups.)

"I am concerned about my finances down the road if costs don't get lower," she said. "My mortgage is really high. And it seems like I'm always owing taxes."

And beyond these groups, there are lots more ways to describe how Americans work:

  • Bare-minimum Mondays: Start your workweek by doing as little work as possible!
  • Career cushioning: Scared of looming layoffs? Make a backup plan while you're still employed.
  • Corporate girlie: The TikTok aestheticization of clocking in for a 9-to-5.
  • Greedflation: The theory that corporate America's suits are exploiting inflation to earn record profits.
  • Lazy-girl jobs: Born of the antiwork movement, lazy-girl jobs are mindless, well-paying gigs for the burned-out employee.
  • Overemployed: If you want to covertly pump up your finances, consider working multiple jobs.
  • Productivity paranoia: Hybrid and remote work means your boss can't see what you're doing at all times. They've responded by micromanaging you even more.
  • Quiet quitting (See also: grumpy staying; loud quitting): The post-pandemic death knell of hustle culture.

Erin Snodgrass is a reporter on Business Insider's news team. She covers various topics, including history, education, and migration.

Jacob Zinkula is a reporter on Business Insider's economy team. He writes about a variety of subjects, including the job market, the gig economy, and remote work.

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