by Pete Mazzaccaro
A current feature in The Atlantic titled “The Cheapest Generation” paints an interesting picture of a major cultural shift in America: a real reluctance on the part of Millennials to buy into the middle class in the form of cars and homes.
The piece notes interesting statistical shifts. In 2010, adults between 21 and 34 bought only 27 percent of new vehicles sold. In 1985, that same demographic bought 38 percent. In another study, homeownership rates among adults younger than 35 fell by 12 percent between 2006 and 2011 with two million among the non-homeowners still living with parents.
The shift has left those in charge of marketing homes and cars to young people in a bit of a bind. They’re consulting MTV marketers and reading through consumer surveys by Zipcar – the car share service that has seen its popularity continue to rise at the expense of Ford and GM.
Two key reasons are offered for this by the article’s authors, Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann. The first is a bit cynical: Young people are spending a lot more than any previous generation on mobile devices – phones, tablets and their associated data plans. There’s a bit of truth there – a new iPhone and a data plan will cost you $1,000 or more a year, which might make a dent in any money left over for a mortgage or even a car payment.
The second is more hopeful, at least if you’re not an employee of GM or a major home builder: Young people want to live in closer-knit communities where smaller homes are the norm and driving is not nearly as essential. Unlike the young adults of 10 years ago, who fueled a charge into the exurban developments, Millennials are looking to cities and ring suburbs – areas not unlike Chestnut Hill, where good housing can be rented and a car is not necessary.
But what has caused this major shift in attitude? Is it that young people are too distracted by their Twitter feed to care about buying a house? Or, are they – as many studies show – simply not earning enough to buy cars and homes the way young Americans have since after World War II?
Both are plausible explanations, but I think there is something else involved – a historic loss of faith in American institutions. Millennials, in my mind, aren’t being cheap or scatterbrained. They”re using their heads, looking around them and deciding they’re better off putting their trust elsewhere. They have not only little trust for cars, homes and the banks that lend them money to buy them, but also for government, the news media, religion and much more.
Gallup, which has tracked popular satisfaction with everything from Congress to banks and business and to police since the ’70s, offers some interesting insights here. Congressional satisfaction is astonishingly low with 7 percent saying they trust Congress a great deal or very much. In 1973, that number was 42 percent.
Other interesting figures show massive distrust of our institutions. In the same category, banks have fallen from 60 percent in 1979 to 26 percent this year. Newspapers have fallen from 51 percent to 22 percent over the same period. Few institutions in this country have the clout they had 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
We can all wring our hands after Nov. 2, when voting rates appear (again) to be astonishingly low. We can marvel as another big American industry is threatened by a new Web-centric startup, but the answer is not as easy as “young people just don’t care anymore.” The young and many older citizens (those Gallup numbers reflect the whole population) aren’t just buying homes and cars. They aren’t buying anything.