Economic recovery is based on how many things we buy, big things too, like DVD box sets and cars and houses and second cars. And here we sit, us generation Y or millennials or whatever, shaking our heads and asking “who the hell cares?” We are, as The Atlantic dubs us in this September article posted today, The Cheapest Generation, those of us wandering through urban areas, whose Zip Car spacephone apps are more important than owning a car, those of us for whom the dream of home ownership seems about as attractive as owning a diabetic elephant, who have, essentially, given up on the idea of “stuff.” And, according to The Atlantic, that means our country’s economy is boned. But that also means our generation is going to be just fine in the long run, and that should be OK with you.
The argument here is that the economy is based on so many “things:” Fixtures and furnishings, McMansions that are quicker to build than more efficient apartment buildings, car manufacturing that employs lots of blue-collar workers. Then here comes our generation, with our tech jobs that don’t employ anyone other than digital robots, and our blogging jobs that don’t require offices and our Netflixes, bike lanes and our books bartered for coffee, and suddenly there’s a lot less money being passed around the economy.
The “Cheapest Generation” is a bit of a misnomer though; it’s not cheapness that defines us, because we’re not all sitting here rolling our pennies and eating beef tongue (the only food that tastes you back!). It’s more the Stuff-Less Generation; or the Collaborative Consumption Generation; or maybe just Generation in the Cloud, which sounds cool and mystical and maybe a little exotic.
Traditional economists will tell you this is a disaster: we usually measure our recovery based on economic growth, which means the economy looks healthier if you’re buying a new car, instead of using the same bike you’ve had for years. The rapid growth all those collaborative consumption services like AirBnB, LooseCubes and Spinlister mean we’re using more of the unused things sitting around in the community, instead of buying a pile of new things that sit around gathering dust.
We have become the generation for whom buying new stuff is just so darned borrrring: that rat-race accumulation of stuff that lots of our parents beat into us as the measure of success seems more like hollow materialism, especially when you can save space in your tiny apartment by farming out your entertainment collection to Netflix and Spotify.
The Atlantic is hardly the first to take note of this trend (and of course we still spend money on stupid shit). It does provide us with some potential new insight into where our limited funds might actually get used:
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.
In one of those previous millennial articles (I can’t keep them all straight, you guys), the writer stated dispassionately that her/this generation has given up on the idea that we’ll ever be “successful,” i.e. have a big pile of money to rub on our private parts like so much drunken Mitt Romney. But she said that we take this news as nonplussed as learning that it’s unlikely any of us will live long enough to see a day when they open an artisanal mayonnaise store on Mars.
We worry about affordable health care because maybe none of us will ever have a job that provides insurance. The time that should be spent fixing Social Security, Medicare and retirement plans is all being spent on figuring out whether rape is OK, so we’ve all lost the illusion that we have any sort of safety net besides our own hustle and maybe, socialism be damned, some helpful friends along the way.
So once you give up on the idea of making money or owning a house with a huge lawn and embrace the notion that even paying off your student debt may be a Pollyanaish dream, what’s left?
Doing something way more fun, obviously.