The Cheapest Generation Objects: 'Cheap and Broke Are Not the Same Thing!'

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My business column in this month's Atlantic with Jordan Weissmann, "The Cheapest Generation," asked whether twentysomethings putting off cars and houses represented a Great Recession trend or a new normal for young people. Here are the best comments -- from Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and TheAtlantic.com -- that disagreed with our emphasis that this generation might be choosing to turn away from cars and houses for reasons that were both economic and cultural.

In short, here are some of the best comments that said, bluntly: Stop pretending like social trends have anything to do with the weak auto and housing market. It's the Great Recession, stupid.

NOT CHEAP; FRUGAL

Cheap is when you have money and refuse to spend it; frugal is when you don't spend money you don't have. 

My kids, and their friends watch their money like hawks. I see this generation as frugal. -- Okra_God

'Cheap and broke are not the same thing!'

'We're broke. We're doing whatever makes sense.'

We're broke. If I could find a job for the low end of what I'm worth with my education (which is only 30-35k) my bf and I could move out. We do want to buy a house, I do want a nicer car, hell, we want to get a nicer desk and we can't even do that. He's not getting paid what he's worth and I can't find a job. Not even an entry level job. (Because they all require six + years of experience. I've been in school for the past decade!)

Even if we did get stable jobs, we'd want to buy a house but we're certainly not buying a giant house. We're not going to look for cars in the upper price range either. We are incredibly aware of money.  We are going to do whatever we can to not accrue more debt, we've already got the student loans.

The advertising (mentioned in the article) is not the problem. I'm sorry that these car salesmen don't believe that we don't care about cars. Because, guess what, I don't. I still have my first car because I have no reason to buy a new one. My brother (still in high school) doesn't care about getting a car because he can't afford one he doesn't need one. My cousins aren't buying new cars because now they have kids they need to save for. It doesn't matter if I saw the car on facebook. It doesn't matter if the car is advertised as having a great stereo or whatever it is they think we want. We don't care because it doesn't make sense to buy it.

Not to mention, I think our generation cares a lot more about the environment.  I, for one, am willing to hang on to my clunker of a car until an electric car becomes affordable. It's better for the environment, it costs less in gas, and they're usual small cars. As a person looking to be in a two person house hold, we don't need a giant truck. Just enough room for us and some groceries.

I'm also going to disagree with the Iphones and the "closer, denser living" but I don't think I'm the majority. Personally, I don't give a crap about having a smart phone. It's frustrating to me how many people are glued to facebook on their phones and have to check their email every fifteen seconds.  But I know that's what all employers and advertisers want so that isn't going to change much. 

I also understand the push for denser suburb living and I'm surprised no one made the connection that it has to do with college. That's what college living is. Lots of people in one space with all their food, shopping, entertainment on campus.  Which is something that makes sense for people. (And is another reason we don't care about cars.)

Bottom line is, we're doing whatever makes sense. -- iambecauseiwrite

EVERYTHING IS GETTING TOO EXPENSIVE

So, home prices went up. Food prices went up. Health care prices went WAY UP. Rent prices went up. Higher education went up so damn high that some of us forgo that all together. Energy prices went up. Car prices went up.

Prices of prices went up.

We also pay cell phone bills, internet bills, data plans, text plans, online subscriptions, cable/satellite tv, netflix, DVR subscriptions -- bills that didn't even exist 30-40 years ago. We also use computers and smartphones and microwaves and other consumer electronics that didn't exist 20-50 years ago.

We need medications and doctors and contact lenses and tampons and maxi pads and other things that cost money just to be alive and keep us healthy.

Most of us can't afford to:

Get married and have a "Traditional" big wedding

Buy a house

Buy a new car

PLAN to have children

Take two, consecutive weeks of vacation.

Jobs that paid 50k in the late 1990s now pay between 30-35. Interest rates that favor consumers have gone down.

So I say, no. We are not choosing not to buy homes. We're not choosing to take the bus in cities where there's no good public transit. WE ARE NOT CHOOSING TO LIVE WHAT SOCIETY DEEMS AS AN UNDESIRABLE LIFESTYLE.

Don't even get me started on the fact that these two people in the picture are young white hipsters. Young lack and brown folks have been forgoing homeownership and buying new cars for decades, this shit isn't new, pal. You're just acting like this shit is new because it's hitting white folks. Anyway, my point is: We are broke. -- shorterexcerpts

I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that 78 hours of minimum wage work could pay the rent in 1980, compared to 109 hours in 2010 [1], along with the other associated cost-of-living increases over the last three decades that have come without comparable increases in wages.

'You mean the generation that paid three times as much for college to enter a job market with triple the unemployment isn't interested in purchasing the assets of the generation who just blew an enormous housing bubble and kept it from popping through quantitative easing and out-and-out federal support? Curious.'

'It's the economy, stupid'

I doubt that most people who felt financially secure and could afford a new car wouldn't want to own a new car. Nobody really enjoys driving a beater, or being forced to walk or ride a bike everywhere (aside from doing it for the enjoyment of it), or trying to negotiate for rides with friends. Public transportation in most of the U.S. is awful, so I don't see many people choosing that over having your own shiny new car.

So the article briefly touches on the economic pressures facing young people in mentioning the recession and student debt, but it spends most of its paragraphs trying to paint some kind of cultural picture of "Millennials" as being a neo-beatnik generation that worships sharing.

No, it's the economy, stupid. And not just recently, either; for the last 50 years at least, there has been a gradual trend towards ownership of things like homes and cars costing more and more in terms of the working hours needed to afford them.

If you are among the 3.8 million people making minimum wage (or less!) now [2], a car is the last damn thing you want to own. You won't be able to afford a good one, so you'll constantly be spending money on maintaining it, not to mention that it will strand you one day and your minimum wage job will be more likely to fire you for not showing up than the average cubicle job. Cars are expensive to license, expensive to insure, and in California, old cars are expensive to smog. Even better, if you fail to pay for any of this, you're likely to receive a citation or ticket, which can quickly add up to more time off work and more money out of pocket.

If you're young, you're far more likely to either be burdened by student debts or be making minimum wage [3]. That means that the odds are that you're either not living on your own, in which case a shared vehicle (either a housemate's or a Zipcar or something else) makes more sense than owning your own, or you're living on your own and you can't afford a shiny new Ford Fiesta without a third full-time job.

Additionally, the entertainment industry tends to make more money during economic downturns, and poor people are more likely to spend a greater portion of their money on entertainment. If you can afford little, you might as well have as much fun as you can, especially if your prospects for making more money in the near future aren't that good. If you can hitch a ride to Burning Man, that sounds better than spending the money of the ticket price and time off work and food and everything else on mechanical work for your aging car. -- thaumaturgy

WHEN DEBT > AVERAGE HOUSE PRICE

I have a loan balance from law school that is worth more than the average house.  You think someone is going to approve me from a mortgage?  Nope.

'I'm not looking at long term investments like a car or house. Would you, if you were me?'

I'm a college student having to cram as many hours in a semester as I can to get done as soon as possible to possibly have less debt and you want to know why I don't want to buy a brand new car? I only have health insurance from my parents, I'm living at home to go to school, I have tremendous trouble finding a job, I have to keep up the car and bike I have now, phone bills ... yes, let me look at a brand new car ... no, that's ridiculous.  Now would be a good time to mention that I have 3 siblings. My parents pay for food for six people; we have the electric bills, gas, sewer, insurance, water, etc. I am part of that lower middle class that doesn't get the aid. I don't get food stamps, or Pell Grants, I have loans, and no help. Everything comes out of my pockets and my pockets are empty. So, you tell me why I'm not looking at long term investments like a car or house. Would you, if you were me? -- pag-asameanshope

'I'd like a house and a yard but it doesn't seem feasible'

Not to be a total dick, but it's not because we're cheap -- IT'S BECAUSE OUR SMARTPHONES MAY BE THE NICEST LUXURY WE CAN AFFORD.  The costs of college and trying to land an apartment one can afford leaves us with not a lot of disposable income. So it's less a preference than "ugh, I can't fucking afford this" first and then "wait, did this ever make sense?"  I'd like a house and a yard but it doesn't seem feasible when you have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay off.  And my next car will certainly be used, just like my current one. -- thethirdshift

'The article mentions lack of opportunity in this economy, but it merely mentions it'

This was an interesting article. The one thing that really pissed me off about it, however, is this assumption that us Millenials are making some sort of choice. To imply we are choosing not to own a car or own a house implies we have options. I know it sounds weird coming from me, since I own a house, but the truth about this house purchase is it was predicated on the belief that my long term partner at the time and I were going to be living together, splitting costs, registering as domestic partners, and settling down to start the family thing. The only thing that made buying a house feasible, made even the notion of buying a house appealing, was having someone to split the costs with.

I don't believe Millennials are so much choosing to be renters, to be living with roommates (when they aren't living with their parents), to find ways to cut transportation costs. We honestly have no other choice.

The article mentions lack of opportunity in this economy, stagnating wages (unless you're a CEO, right?), high cost of education and student loans - but it merely mentions them. Brushes over them. They are an aside, something approached as a "Hmm, isn't that interesting" in favor of trying to dissect the culture of Generation Y.

No.

Our generation's culture is being defined by our obstacles. By the time things turn around and improve we'll be so used to our current way of living it will be instinctual to live the way we do: nomadic, tribal, tech-savvy vagabonds eschewing permanent ties to ownership. If I hadn't bought a home a year ago and was asked to consider it now, I would not. In fact, I'd love to be rid of mine. I can't fault myself for making the best decisions I could at the time I made them, but the truth of the matter is no matter how much I'm trying to rush into adulthood (like I was told I should do while I was growing up) I am a Millennial. -- thenewnero

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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