I have been going back over a piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissman entitled “The Cheapest Generation.” The article posits that Generation Y has different consumer values because they are “less interested” in buying homes and automobiles than prior generations.
As it so happened, I put up the first comment which earned over 1000 “likes”:
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.
Quite surprising to me, people in their twenties have been writing me personally to thank me for this sentence. Well…OK guys, you’re welcome! But maybe there’s a reason behind the enthusiasm for this comment – the fundamental thesis of the authors is wrong.
Let me expand – older people are falling all over themselves to explain the “unusual” behavior of these mysterious younger people who “don’t share the values of other generations” on cars, careers, babies and more. The value explanation is cargo cult science. Americans in their 20s don’t necessarily have different consumer values – they’re broke. They have been systematically impoverished, and then we pretend that they don’t want cars for some personal reason. America has a completely dysfunctional public transport system in the majority of its cities – you absolutely cannot live without a car. The reason young people aren’t buying cars is that 1) cars are expensive 2) they don’t have money.
Let’s have a look at some charts. First, youth unemployment:
It’s the worst job market for young people in thirty years – and this chart doesn’t detail the rise of McJobs with low wages and little stability that have replaced the light manufacturing jobs we shipped overseas.
Now let’s look at the student loan data, the money these kids had to borrow to deal with the rise in tuition that just happens to have tracked upward with the federal guidelines to allow people to take more money in loans.
Wow, you mean that the people taking out a combined trillion dollars in student loans don’t have the same consumer behavior as the generation that started with nearly no college loans? You don’t say.
I believe that there is an unconscious, concerted effort to create alternative explanations that keep us from having to arrive at an uncomfortable conclusion – these young people are being actively screwed out of their future, leveraged to the hilt, fully expected to start their own lives under this yoke while paying for every entitlement their parents voted for themselves. And who wants to think that way? It would mean some uncomfortable tension in the workplace and around the Thanksgiving table, n’est-ce pas? Perhaps it’s easier to think of it as different values. Because imagine a generation that becomes aware that the institutions of society exist to enrich everybody but them.
AWK-WARD, as the kids say.