If you think the student debt crisis has gotten out of hand, you're correct. Americans owe an astounding $1.59 trillion in student loans, and at the rate students are borrowing, that number is likely to climb.

Now, when we think about those most likely to be impacted by student debt, we tend to land on recent graduates -- 20-somethings navigating young adulthood, kicking off their careers, and managing monthly payments that eat up an uncomfortably large chunk of their earnings.

A Gen-X couple sit on a sofa fiddling with their phones.

Image source: Getty Images

But actually, adults in their 20s don't have it so bad on the student loan front compared to some of their older counterparts. That's because Americans ages 35 to 49 have the highest level of outstanding federal student loan debt, according to our Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2019

How much do folks in their mid-30s to late 40s owe the Department of Education? Currently, their collective balance is estimated at $548 billion, compared to just $494 billion for those aged 24 to 35 ("just" being a relative term, of course). That's a lot of debt to grapple with somewhat later in life -- and it explains why so many older millennials and Gen Xers are struggling financially. 

What's the deal with all that debt?

Why do Americans between the ages of 35 and 49 owe so much money on student loans? The Great Recession of 2008 could be partly to blame. During that time, many workers in their 20s with limited experience found themselves unemployed or underemployed when jobs became scarce and salaries took a dive. It's likely that many 20-something borrowers, and even 30-something borrowers, had to defer their loan payments or refinance their debt to extend their repayment terms and lower their monthly payments. 

What about folks in their mid-to-late 40s? Their high level of student debt could stem from the fact that they've started taking out loans on their children's behalf. Many parents rack up additional debt to spare their kids from graduating too deep in the hole, even if it means harming their own finances as well, so that's another factor that could be at play here. 

Managing student debt at any age

Borrowers in their mid-30s to late 40s who have student debt don't necessarily have an easier time paying it off than those who are younger. While you can argue that 35-to-49-year-olds generally earn more than folks in their 20s and early 30s, they also tend to have greater expenses, such as mortgages and the like. As such, it's fair to label student debt as a universal, age-neutral problem.

No matter how old you are, if you're loaded with student debt, your best bet is to get on a tight budget and pay down those loans as quickly as you can. If you really can't make your monthly payments, you can look into deferring your loans for a while, but doing so will prolong the life of your repayment period. The same holds true for getting yourself on an income-driven repayment plan that will initially lower your monthly payments. Cutting back on expenses to pay off that debt faster may be a better bet. 

Another option: Get a second job. Side hustles are all the rage these days, and you can use the income from yours to pay down your loans without having to make too many lifestyle sacrifices. 

Student debt isn't going away anytime soon. And although 35-to-49-year-olds currently have more of it than any other age group, it's a problem that all borrowers should aim to tackle head-on. With any luck, doing so will make the current crisis a bit less dire.