At Via Meadia, we have been reporting for some time on what we have call “the War on the Young.” The Blue Social Model that my generation expanded without thinking about that tiny little detail of how we were going to pay for it all has placed local and state governments in the position of funding Boomer retirements rather than Millennials educations. A loosely-regulated student loan complex combined with a generational obsession with credentialing encouraged many young Americans to take on crippling levels of educational debt for courses that were either academically dubious (history of surfing?) or that were more geared to a Blue America of lifetime employment, rather than the peripatetic, skills-centric 21st century economy.
Maligned as indecisive, over-qualified, under-educated, burdened with debt: welcome to the life of many young Americans today. And as 94 million Millennials begin to think about one of life’s biggest financial investments – housing – on top of all of these challenges, it’s no wonder that many feel overwhelmed. That’s partly why so many depressed young people are inclined to drop out (of the workforce or school), tune out (from a constructive political conversation), and move in (back with Mom and Dad). What, they argue, do they have to look forward to?
A lot, it turns out. Wars against the young are very easy to fight but very hard to win. Boomer ineptitude and shortsightedness saddled future generations with some tricky and expensive problems, but youth and imagination will trump lazy, greedy old folks in the end.
Via Meadia thinks that the future for the Millennials is much brighter than the doomsters would have us believe — and housing is an example. At the end of the day, the nation’s housing stock will have to be priced at a level the American people can afford (unless foreigners suddenly develop a massive hunger for residential property in the suburbs of Peoria), and if the only people aging Boomers can sell their homes to are debt-burdened, overtaxed and under-served Millennials, the geezers are going to have to mark down their selling price. It’s called arithmetic, and it works.
Meanwhile, many Millennials are thrown for a loop by misleading new urbanist buzz. As Joel Kotkin writes in a recent op-ed, too often an odd couple of property developers and élites in the legacy media promote values about housing to young Americans that are totally out of step with the emerging – and optimistic – reality. You’d think from watching shows like The Hills or reading urban planning propaganda that America’s housing future is in dense, urban, apartment living on top of light rail lines — and connected to other yuppie hubs by super duper high speed rail.
It’s an intoxicating vision, especially for real estate developers and construction unions. Everybody wins: real estate developers make a killing convincing Blue state and local government to build rail lines near their buildings … while a cadre of sexy young professionals ferries back and forth from fashionable bachelor(ette) pads to jobs in design, green NGOs, and democracy promotion outfits in even more dense urban cores. Who could argue with that — other than the growing numbers of Millennials who can’t afford to live that way and don’t especially want to?
Surveys do suggest that Millennials actually prefer living in the humble detached home to unaffordable yuppie pods on top of tram lines, but something much more interesting may be happening. Home improvement companies like Lowe’s and Home Depot report an uptick in the number of investors into multi-generational homes, or homes with integrated professional office spaces. Some builders, like Pulte Homes and Lennar, are even specializing in ‘multi-generational’ homes with cordoned-off space for Millennials, Baby Boomers, and grandparents to live and maybe work under one roof.
This is hardly a trend yet, but moving past the single family home in the dormitory burb makes a lot of sense for a lot of people. Multiple generations can leverage their credit, equity and incomes to buy or build something that has room for everyone. There are benefits to living together in something bigger than a nuclear family, especially if you aren’t living in your mom’s basement. Retired or semiretired grandparents can do a lot of the child care, and kid hauling business that today’s suburban parents spend so much time on — and they can do even more to advance the home or community schooling that we are going to see more of as time goes by. (That may be particularly important if the trend toward single parent households continues.)
But it isn’t just grandparents who could be hanging around the home of the future more. Telecommuting is likely going to play a much larger role as a generation of tech savvy Americans figure out that the traditional five times a week commute is a waste of time and money that both employer and employee benefit from minimizing. And as commuting becomes a sometimes rather than a daily routine, more people will be free to move to the exurbs and edge cities where land is cheap, taxes are low and traffic less dense. The home of the future may well do more, have more people in it, and be bigger and more interesting than the homesteads of the past.
All of these trends underscore how misguided the declinist narrative is. It’s true that housing costs in Blue havens like New York and San Francisco remain high whether or not Millenials are looking to buy or rent. But in key markets like Chicago, Atlanta, or Miami, mortgage payments on the supposedly dowdy detached house are increasingly affordable compared to renting, even as new generations of America rethink what family homes are all about.
It’s true, as Megan McArdle writes, that Millennials should ask themselves the usual questions before making investments in real estate. Renting isn’t a dumb option for young people who aren’t sure how long they plan to live in a given part of the country. But rethinking what they want out of a house must be part of that decision. The isolated suburban house of Liberalism 4.0 was often a stuffy place that kept women from doing interesting work, sheltered children from knowing much about the kind of work their parents, and broke up what an existing American tradition of multi-generational households. The households that Millennials build – more multi-generational platforms for work and living rather than Stepford houses – will be part of a creative reinvention of the role of the family home in the next iteration of the American dream.
Government policy can and should support these changes. I’ll be writing more about the importance of promoting telecommuting; whether you look at the environment, at family life, at promoting more part time work for the retired. at infrastructure costs or at efficiency and productivity, promoting telecommuting (if not everyday, then for one or more days per week) for more workers offers huge benefits to everyone involved. The dormitory suburb needs to become the home office exurb.
Figuring out how to help people take care of themselves and do more things on the basis of family and community action from schooling kids to taking care of the old and the disabled rather than mediating these activities through expensive and cumbersome bureaucracies is going to be an important part of getting to a new, more productive and more humane social order. Whether through tax credits or payments, families and communities who take care of their own should have to pay less taxes (or get rebates) to reflect their reduced drain on public resources. If government starts to recognize these realities and support productive households who engage in them, we will accelerate the move to wealthier, more productive, more comprehensive households — living in bigger homes in leafier suburbs with more security and richer lives than those their parents and grandparents knew.
Which is a big part of what America is about.
Go for it, kids. The world will be yours, and sooner than you think. Wars against the young always fail in the end, and instead of fighting for scraps at the short end of history, you have the chance to take the American dream to levels we can only dimly imagine today.
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