This month’s issue of The Atlantic has a feature about Millenials’ money issues called “The Cheapest Generation.” The piece examines young people’s unwillingness or inability — or some blend of the two — to buy cars and homes and take part in the growth-generating aspects of our economy. Turns out, not only can young folk not afford cars and homes, they’re also less interested in living in big houses far away from downtown that require us to have cars. Housing and transportation are not to be considered separately.
Half of a typical family’s spending today goes to transportation and housing, according to the latest Consumer Expenditure Survey, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the height of the housing bubble, residential construction and related activities accounted for more than a quarter of the economy in metro areas like Las Vegas and Orlando. Nationwide, new-car and new-truck purchases hovered near historic highs. But Millennials have turned against both cars and houses in dramatic and historic fashion. Just as car sales have plummeted among their age cohort, the share of young people getting their first mortgage between 2009 and 2011 is half what it was just 10 years ago, according to a Federal Reserve study.
Needless to say, the Great Recession is responsible for some of the decline. But it’s highly possible that a perfect storm of economic and demographic factors—from high gas prices, to re-urbanization, to stagnating wages, to new technologies enabling a different kind of consumption—has fundamentally changed the game for Millennials. The largest generation in American history might never spend as lavishly as its parents did—nor on the same things. Since the end of World War II, new cars and suburban houses have powered the world’s largest economy and propelled our most impressive recoveries. Millennials may have lost interest in both.
The upside to this, of course, is that by living with fewer cars on smaller plots of land, we won’t use such an obscene amount of the world’s resources — and according to the story, more densely populated areas are more economically productive. If the whole world lived like us, we’d need 4.1 earths to live on. We don’t have those extra earths. So there’s a bright spot in our generation’s fiscal woes. Hopefully.