The Cheapest Generation

Why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy
More

Millennials, of course, are sharing more than transportation: they’re also sharing living quarters, albeit begrudgingly, and with less gee-whiz technology involved. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, between 2006 and 2011, the homeownership rate among adults younger than 35 fell by 12 percent, and nearly 2 million more of them—the equivalent of Houston’s population—were living with their parents, as a result of the recession. The ownership society has been overrun by renters and squatters.

Nine out of 10 Millennials say they eventually want a place they own, according to a recent Fannie Mae survey. But this generation’s path to home­ownership is fraught with obstacles: low pay, low savings, tighter lending standards from banks. Student debt—some $1 trillion in total—stalks many potential buyers as they seek a mortgage (or a car loan). At a minimum, homeownership rates are highly unlikely to soon return to the peaks they hit during the housing bubble.

Still, in the next decade, a group of people the size of California’s population—­most of them Millennials—will likely come together to form new households. The question is: Where, and in what manner?

In some respects, Millennials’ residential aspirations appear to be changing just as significantly as their driving habits—indeed, the two may be related. The old cul-de-sacs of Revolutionary Road and Desperate Housewives have fallen out of favor with Generation Y. Rising instead are both city centers and what some developers call “urban light”—denser suburbs that revolve around a walkable town center. “People are very eager to create a life that blends the best features of the American suburb—schools still being the primary, although not the only, draw—and urbanity,” says Adam Ducker, a managing director at the real-estate consultancy RCLCO. These are places like Culver City, California, and Evanston, Illinois, where residents can stroll among shops and restaurants or hop on public transportation. Such small cities and town centers lend themselves to tighter, smaller housing developments, whether apartments in the middle of town, or small houses a five-minute drive away. An RCLCO survey from 2007 found that 43 percent of Gen‑Yers would prefer to live in a close-in suburb, where both the houses and the need for a car are smaller.

Wholly apart from their urban sensibility, townhouses and other small houses are more affordable, all else equal, and developers know that to attract Millennials, they need to cater to tattered bank accounts. “The types of properties young people are buying now are different from what [that age group] bought five years ago,” said Shannon Williams King, the vice chair of strategic planning at the National Association of Realtors. “They are within walking distance of shopping centers. These buyers want bike shares and Zipcar. They like feeling connected.” In short, the future of the house might look a lot like the future of the car: smaller, cheaper, built for a new economy.

If the Millennials are not quite a post-­driving and post-owning generation, they’ll almost certainly be a less-­driving and less-­owning generation. That could mean some tough adjustments for the economy over the next several years. In recent decades, the housing industry has usually led us out of recession. When the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates in the midst of the sharp recession of the early 1980s, for instance, a construction boom helped fuel the “Reagan Recovery.” With the housing market moribund, the Federal Reserve has lost a key means of influencing the economy with lower interest rates. The service-led recovery we’ve gotten instead is not nearly as robust.

“I don’t think car-buying for Millennials will ever be what it was for Boomers,” said Sheryl Connelly, head of global consumer trends at Ford.

Smaller houses built in dense, mixed-use neighborhoods generally take longer to build than McMansions on green-field sites. And of course, because they require fewer fixtures and furnishings, their construction spurs less economic activity.

What’s more, both construction and automaking are solidly blue-­collar sectors. They employ millions of middle-class workers, who could be hurt by a transition away from home construction and auto manufacturing. The tech companies that sell personal electronics and provide high-speed Internet connections don’t need as many workers. And the jobs they do create—domestically at least—skew heavily toward the top of the socioeconomic ladder.

Yet in the long run, there’s good cause for optimism as well. Nobody is suggesting that the American consumer has bought her last house or car—only that houses and cars may lose some of the outsize importance they’ve had to the economy for the past 10 or 20 years or more. “There are a lot of countries, Germany for example, where homeownership rates are a lot lower than ours, and they have healthy incomes,” said Robert Lerman, an Urban Institute fellow in labor and social policy. Simple arithmetic says that if Americans spend less money on cars and houses, they’ll have more money left over to spend or save—and not all of that will go to electronic gadgets.

Education is the “obvious outlet for the money Millennials can spend,” Perry Wong, the director of research at the Milken Institute, told us, noting that if young people invest less in physical things like houses, they’ll have more to invest in themselves. “In the past, housing was the main vehicle for investment, but education is also a vehicle.” In an ideas economy, up-to-date knowledge could be a more nimble and valuable asset than a house.

What’s more, the shift away from traditional suburbs toward denser, urban-light living could have major economic-growth implications on its own. Economic research shows that doubling a community’s population density tends to increase productivity by anywhere between 6 percent and 28 percent. Economists have found that more than half of the variation in output per worker across U.S. states can be explained by density. Our wealth, after all, is determined not only by our own skills and talents, but by our ability to access the ideas of those around us; there’s a lot to be gained by increasing the odds that smart people might bump against each other. Ultimately, if the Millennial generation pushes our society toward more sharing and closer living, it may do more than simply change America’s consumption culture; it may put America on firmer economic footing for decades to come.

Derek Thompson is an Atlantic senior editor. Jordan Weissmann is an Atlantic associate editor.
Jump to comments
Presented by

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

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In