Newsflash, Millennials: No More Avocados For You

You might think that the incredible housing squeeze on young people is unique to your area. Your city. Your country. I’ve lived on four continents and travelled the world every year since 2007. You’d be wrong. It’s everywhere.

This piece got picked up by Economy.com, a group dedicated to making economics more accessible and interesting for the average person. Please see the version on their online magazine here. 

Unfortunately, I was born into one of the craziest places for this trend. I was born in 1987 in Boulder, Colorado, USA. I’m in town visiting, and the house to which my parents first brought me is the same purple colour as it was then, on a busy corner near to Pearl Street. I dared to look up property prices in the area. That may have been a mistake. It sold for $106,300 in December 1989. It’s now worth about $750,000.

My parents recently received their updated property price assessment in the mail last week. In two years, the total amount that the tax office estimates my childhood home is worth went up $114,000. In two years! A 19% increase. Crazily enough, this year is not an anomaly. I know people who pay less in New York City for rent than in Denver! In the last six years, property prices and rents in the Front Range of Colorado have gone up at least 50%.

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Longmont, Colorado

That’s almost two times higher increases than in London, to put it in perspective. I lived in London from 2013-2015, and I know firsthand that affording rent is tough in the city. My husband and I got married during that time, and we shared a house with seven people in Leyton. For one room in a house with but one bathroom, we paid £630 (about $1100 at the time) per month.

In France, affordable housing is a major issue among young people, driving 40% of them into the arms of Le Pen during the last election (she promised more affordable property). In Korea, there are somewhat-artificial housing booms, with older neighbourhoods being knocked down and huge, hive-like apartment buildings rising ever more numerous in even small cities. In Australia, property prices in already-basically-impossible to afford Sydney are up 20% just in 2017 (nationwide, 12.9%).

That stream of numbers directly impacts the lives and wellbeing of younger adults. Just 34.1% of ‘Millennials’ own property in the USA, a record low. Everyone is scrambling to blame something for that fact.

The last couple of years have seen paroxysms of worry-journalism about young adults not buying property (I counted no fewer than 10 ‘What if Millennials Never Buy Houses?!’ headlines from just this year in major publications). An Australian property tycoon recently said the young can’t afford to buy houses because they’re spending all their money on $4 coffee and smashed avocados.

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In a certain sense, albeit deliberately twisted from his original meaning, Tim Gurner is right about his own generation.

Do millennials really spend more and save less than previous generations? According to some measures, yes! But it is important to put the spending in context, specifically in the context of wages and purchasing power.

Due to inflation and changes in the real cost of buying things, real wages have stagnated or even fallen in real terms for decades. Some argue that stagnant wages are a temporary by-product of Brexit, but that is just not borne out by the data. If you want to find out how much your wages would be worth in a past year, use a cost of living calculator online.

If I had the same salary in 1987, it would have been worth more than double its 2017 value in real terms. Yet many industries have not increased wages, with many in my generation stuck in the $20,000-$35,000 range. In the UK, real wages have fallen 10.4% since 2007.

The only OCED country with an equal precipitous decrease over that time? Greece.

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This is how Greece felt about that. Courtesy of CNN.

What is the price of houses in relation to average earnings in comparison to previous generations? The answer may make you swear aloud and scare your relatives, like I just did while researching this piece. Let’s start with the incredible increases in basic commodities prices, as shown by the price of a pint.

In 1982, you’d have paid 73p for a regular beer in a pub. Thirty years later, the 2012 price was £3.18 on average (and approximately £25 for a craft pint in London…). That means in 2012 you’d have needed £299 in your wallet to have equal purchasing power to £100 in 1982.

£100 = £300 

Because Economics. 

Average wages in the UK in 1982 allowed for a relatively high number of people to get on the property ladder. The average house prices were lower when compared to income. By contrast, in 2017 the comparison stands at 3.5 (meaning that a mortgage would be for 3.5 times one’s yearly income).  EDIT: Guys, I was wrong. FullFact.org informs me that the numbers are considerably worse. According to the government’s own research:  

In 1997, house prices were on average around 3.6 times workers’ annual gross full-time earnings, whereas in 2016 workers could typically expect to spend around 7.6 times annual earnings on purchasing a home.

That’s worse than in the depths of the Great Recession.

In Sydney, which is too expensive even for the billionaire investor who spouted that avocado quote, housing costs (rent included) are up 70% in the last five years. Wages are up only 13%. The gap between earnings and property prices is big, and growing wider.

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Young people are considerably more saddled with student loan debt as well. Comparing those who graduated in 2002 to those in 2015, more than 70% of graduates were expected to never pay off their loans. That’s a big difference; half those from 2002 have already paid theirs off. In 2004, 57% of those aged 25-34 in the UK owned a house. In 2014 (most recent data), that had fallen to 37%. Economists and real, actual young people alike cite student loan debt as a major factor in the lower numbers.

So yes, young people aren’t saving money as much as previous generations and they aren’t buying as much property, either. It’s hard to save when you’re trying to cover the basics, living paycheck to paycheck as many young people do.What Gurner and other critics seem to be saying implicitly is that young people should sacrifice even more.

Many of us do. In desperate attempts to turn hard economic realities into a ‘lifestyle,’ many people under the age of 35 have created identities that soften the blow of being poorer than their parents at this age, if not outright glamourise low-income life. They apply trendy labels to their economic struggles like, ‘minimalist.’ That might reasonably translate to ‘I can afford neither nice things nor a place to put them!’

Vintage recipes, based on rationing and the shortages of the Great Depression are all the rage among young families.

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$5 Icelandic black caviar on a hot dog,
Tim Gurner. What now?

Tiny houses are huge, with the low pricetag as a major draw. Alternative housing (sharing, coliving, community shares, digital nomdism) are redefining what ‘home’ can mean for people under 35. It’s not all bad, but it is mostly a departure from the expectations with which we were raised. For many, including this Millennial writing from her parents’ house in suburban America, there is a pervasive sense of shame connected to money and saving.

Our economy does encourage young people to save, rather than spend. We know that we should be putting away a fifth of our income for retirement, but since more than a third of it is going on rent we can’t. We feel the guilt if we treat ourselves to a couple of beers at our favourite brewery. We put off marriage, children, buying cars, and getting out of jobs that we hate because we have the financial equivalent of The Fear of God in us. We try our best to mitigate the after effects of the Great Recession, all tempered with the real-world experience to know the next big crash is coming. We want to save, but many of us just can’t.

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A typical Millennial Apartment in South Korea – 190 square feet

All those traditional markers of adulthood that used to connect us to society at large are changing. In many cases, they can still be achieved with relative ease. For more young adults, they seem difficult or even insurmountable. The last god damned thing those of us in these circumstances need is a billionaire complaining that we don’t save enough. He didn’t save the $34,000 he used to make his first investment. It was a gift to him from family! There’s nothing strictly-speaking wrong with getting financial help from family, but it is not the same as saving every $4 coffee.

There is certainly a tendency to blame young adults for our own financial burdens. It’s possible that many of us are making poor choices, but that would not distinguish us from any previous generation. The truth is that the economy is changing, has changed, and is not benefitting all of us.

I look forward to my £11 pint in the year 2047, when the house I was born into will cost $4.7 million and I will have finally paid off my London master’s degree. I’m only half-joking.

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