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.

My Life Immersed in The Sharing Economy

We are here in Iceland because we are volunteering for a non-profit, for the summer. But we are also living in the most ‘Sharing’ conditions that I’ve personally experienced, even with our shared house in London (and five-six roommates at a time). Iceland is well-suited to the sharing economy that has been taking off for a few years. It makes sense because we are volunteering, but we seem to have veered off into a communal existence for this summer in Iceland.

We share:

  • Rides. Iceland is well-known for hitchhiking, but we also share rides with those who live on our camp if someone happens to be going into town.
  • Food. We eat leftovers from the summer camps that come to stay and also have communal meals with the others volunteering and working on the campsite.
  • Cars. There’s a single Jeep that we share with those who have a driver’s license.
  • Bikes. Our main transportation to and from work, from a big shipping container filled with bikes in various states of repair.
  • A single washing machine. It’s busy.
  • Accommodation. At some point, the house we’re borrowing from the power company might have as many as ten people staying in it.
  • A pet? The cat now knows me as the Food Lady, since I feed her often.
  • Clothes. Our staff uniforms are in a neat stack in the basement, and we share the fleeces and vests for leading programs.
  • Climbing equipment, archery stuff, and various kinds of activities on site.
  • A few very overworked routers.
  • Skills.
  • Two Kitchens.
  • Campfires.
  • The showers on campsite, which are geothermally heated and AWESOME.

We don’t share:

  • Toothbrushes.
  • Bedclothes. Seriously, me and Russ have separate duvets in the Icelandic tradition.
  • Underwear.
  • Plates.
  • Socks.
  • Contact lenses.
  • Secrets.

It’s working really well for us, actually. Due to traveling for several years on end and having few personal possessions, the ability to have access to a car or rides basically whenever needed is great. Our room and board are paid for in hours spent working, and we are able to spend next to nothing while on site. I took out cash at the ATM in the airport three weeks ago and I still haven’t run out, even with our big trip to the Westfjords.

Life in the Sharing Econom requires a lot of communication and a bit of patience, but it can work well even among strangers. We’re adjusting well and it might eventually be hard to go back to a more individualistic way of doing things.

Great Article: Let’s Talk About Millennial Poverty

View at Medium.com

I’m not in as dire straits as some, including the author of this excellent article. It bears mentioning that I’m not immune to the phenomena she describes, though.

Yesterday I had a long discussion about graduate school and teaching with a coworker, who is leaving this week. We talked about her belief, as mine once was, that she should be able to get into a programme at a top-tier school and get the necessary support from a research assistantship or teaching assistantship. She wants to do a stand-alone MA. It’s not very likely that those positions would be available, and with the rise of adjunct ‘professorships’ it’s possible that they wouldn’t be available even if she did want to go the full PhD nine yards.

She wants to go into International Education and study abroad administration, the other other career I had in my early 20s. I told her that there’s no way that she should be paying for an MA if she is working in that situation, since many universities offer credit programmes and part-time master’s classes as part of employment.She was confused when I said that I hadn’t personally had the opportunity, but I wasn’t going to go into all the complications of moving abroad and coming back and everything. Not to mention that most jobs I’ve ever had in the US were purposefully pinned to 39.75 hours per week to deny me that benefits of full-time employment.

It should be a familiar refrain for many Millennials.

Work hard. Study hard. Do loads of extracurriculars.

Pray that you never get sick or have an accident. Work harder. Apply. Apply. Apply. Put in 80+ applications for menial jobs in London and get an answer for two of them.

Go to interviews where they don’t tell you it’s unpaid until you’re already there. Work in a bar and have your professors come in for table service.

Live at your parents’ house. Live at your partner’s parents’ house (To be fair to the article above, I’ve had the privilege to be able to move in with family when it was necessary). Be ecstatic with $10-$12 per hour.

Pay more than $1000 per month for a room in a house with a toilet shared between six-eight people. Look at your bank statements at the end of each month and wonder if you can make it to payday. Overdraw the only time in your entire life, and get hit with a £50 overdraw fee from the bank.

Take the tax hit instead of buying the insurance you can’t afford but you must buy under a law that was meant to help you, not hurt you. Pay $800 out of pocket for an outbreak of Shingles and garner disbelief when you say to the receptionists again and again, “Sorry, I don’t have insurance.”

Move to other countries to find jobs that you can’t back home. Move to China so that you can have health insurance and live in your own place with your husband. Ok, maybe those last two are more specific to me.

I’m not in abject poverty, but I choked on my tea to see that the average income for a new graduate in 2015 is $44,000. I’ve never made that kind of money in my life! I’m certainly not in poverty compared to those around me in China. But something feels wrong about all the work that I put into my education, and all the work experience I’ve gain since then. It’s not enough to get the life that I was told to expect.

I don’t have high expectations anymore; I want to live in the same country as my husband, have some good and nutritious food to eat, travel a bit, and be able to work (but not the 50 hours per week I’m currently pulling). Maybe someday I’d like to have children and not have to pay $3000 out of pocket at least for each birth. I’d like to have a place to live that isn’t shared between eight people who I don’t know.

It’s just that sometimes even those lowered expectations feel out of reach. It’s especially hard when my government and that of my husband base our right to live as a family on the money we don’t really have. Still harder is having to explain this almost every other day to those around us. Most people still assume that Married=Passport (not since 1927!) or at the very least, Married=Partner Visa. We are too in debt and making too little money to afford to live in the same country unless we go abroad for now.

That’s the life of this Millennial at 27.

On Not Saving Any Money in Korea

Korean-style Caprese Salad. made with tomatoes, mozzarella, and sesame leaves. I miss eating fresh, good food every day instead of a couple times per week.

WARNING: This post is mathematically-inaccurate, slightly boring, and generally detrimental to your TEFL soul and mine. Do yourself a favour and read this new shiny post instead (from 2013!)

From the website of my recruiter, the agency that facilitated my move to Korea:

“We know some single people who live on about $300 USD a month and others who push it easily over $1000 USD per month.  It depends on how thrifty you are and how often you go out.  $600 USD is pretty reasonable for a single person. This allows for dinners, drinks, nights out, movies, small weekend trips, etc… “

With my salary and the adjustment for the exchange rate, that should have meant about $1000 in savings for each month. Ha. Ha.

I have managed to save a grand total of $828.27 in five months in Korea. My salary is higher than any I’ve had before, I have benefits like health insurance that I’ve never independently obtained before, and I don’t even pay rent! I am living on my own and out of my parents’ basement, which is a lot better than I was able to do back in Colorado. I only have to work five days a week instead of seven. This month, I managed to finally pay off my credit card expenses for the visa process and my taxes.

Considering the dire straits many in my generation find themselves in, these should be financial achievements.

And yet my goals for Korea in terms of money are on the rocks, as the cost of living appears to be almost twice what my recruiter assumes it will be. Add to that the shitty turn the exchange rate has taken in the time I’ve been here, and instead of sending home 800 USD per month, I sent $674 this month. And even with a budget of 800.000 KRW per month, or 200.000 per week, I’ve found it hard to save anything. This month and last, I’ve decided to go a little hungry and skip eating lunch for at least the week leading up to payday rather than spend my savings.

What is happening here?

Part of it is the global economy. Everything is so volitile these days that the exchange rates on most currencies are all over the place.

Part of it is misinformation. People are basing their moving to Korea on information from before the economic crisis really hit the fan in 2008, and a lot of the teachers I know refer to things in dollars as opposed to KRW. Recruiting companies may exaggerate without knowing the true cost of living, or on purpose to attract teachers. If I stay on track, I will save about $2400 while in Korea. Certainly not nothing, but certainly less than the $8,000 I wanted to save for travel and graduate school.

Part of it is me. I like to think I’m a fairly thrifty person. I don’t buy a lot of clothes, makeup, or anything else. I spend the most money on food, and I’ll admit I’m a bit of a food snob. I can’t subsist on bags of frozen chicken purchased on G Market. I prefer whole wheat pasta to instant noodles. I like to go to the sauna each week. It’s nice to have a few beers every weekend. All of those things are normal, and supposedly a part of the “reasonable” $600 budget my recruiters talked about. And yet, the 800.000 won (which incidentally is currently worth only $705 this month) I budget is consistently not enough.

I stress about money all the time here. It feels like I’m always putting things off until my next paycheck. Recently, I’ve had to remind myself that I have to eat…that I have to be clothed. Buying essentials like clothes and food shouldn’t make me feel guilty.

Am I doing something wrong here? A lot of people manage to get by on very little in Korea and use the extra to pay off student loans or save. Yet every month I get into this crush, and feel like I can’t even buy food because if I have to dip into savings to do so, I’m failing. I wanted so much to be able to travel again after this year was up, but it’s looking less and less likely.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from travel is how to change my plans to suit circumstances. Travel also reduces a person to the five basics in life (Toilet, Food, Shelter, Transport, Water). I’ve tested my limits many times, leaving me with a more informed view on just how hungry it is OK to be and just how far I can stretch a dollar.

Like I said in the previous post, I am not traveling in Korea. If I skrimp by buying frozen chicken on GMarket and stop spending any money at all on activities within Korea with an eye toward some hypothetical future trip, I’m not really living here. I would miss out on the amazing things like staying up until dawn listening to classical music with friends and wearing the Korean version of a rally cap at a baseball game.

…which is this inflated trash bag, apparently.

Living in the my present, in Korea, and actually living…that’s my real goal. And if I can’t save any money here while doing that, then it is time that goal changed.

What’s Wrong With the United States? Part Two

Yesterday I started a series of blogs dedicated to the noticeable problems that I’ve observed since returning to the States. The complex underpinnings of our food culture and their encouragement through commercialization of food and the degradation of traditional eating patterns slowly leading us to collective suicide aside (mouthful!), there is a further extension of the glorification of quantity over quality. This extends to all areas of American consumer life.

The most influential and highest-grossing store in the United States is Wal-Mart. They blow other competitors away on Black Friday, which is later this week (in case you hadn’t been bombarded with ads since before Halloween). Last year on this most thinly-veiled of all commercial holidays, this megastore saw a 30% increase in traffic as compared to previous years. Part economic recession, part clever advertising, and part extremely low prices on everything from underwear to electronics. No matter that the prices are slashed so low that they seem impossible…those Homer Simpson slippers were made with indentured labor in China and so they cost nothing to make. Wal-Mart could probably sell some of their products for a dime and still make eight cents of profit.

Anyone who’s ever shopped at the great Wal knows that the quality of the low-priced products is shabby at best. It will probably fall apart in two months and then you’ll have to go buy a new one.

And that’s the key. People in the United States (and elsewhere) have been conditioned into a culture of extreme consumerism. If something breaks or is out of fashion or doesn’t fit anymore due to our expanding waistlines, we stash it and then go buy a new one. The poor quality of clothing and other products that we buy is offset by their replacement. And that’s how you end up with five of the same sweater in five shades of beige.

A snapshot of her two-layered, 4000 package paper towel stockpile from TLC.Discovery.com

But I already knew that before living abroad eight months out of the year. What’s struck me as the next step in the insanity is TLC’s new show in their parade of the bizzare, Extreme Couponing. Just one look at the stockpiles that these people have amassed is enough to reveal a serious fixation on overwhelming quantities of household and personal products. They routinely are worth over $30,000. It’s true, those in these stories are probably clinically off-balance. Plus, they now have to eat the same chemical-laced soup that has enough preservatives to make it edible in 1000 years for the rest of their lives. If the prospect is not enough to push them over the edge, I don’t know what would be.

These people need help. - From TLC.Discovery.com

Just the fact that we have a TV show dedicated to this phenomenon is evidence of a serious cultural failing in the US. We want more and more and more until we can’t even possibly eat or use all the products that we’ve stockpiled. This valuing of quantity over quality puts pressure on companies to produce beyond their means. Then customers must buy beyond theirs in order to have “enough.” Then we need more space for all of our junk, and so we have to buy a house with a mortgage beyond our means. And two cars at least, and smartphones, and 50 pairs of shoes, and five giant-screen TVs….And all of that leads to the third cultural failing in the United States.

We are a culture of debt.

It’s undeniable. Our national debt has surged to over $15 Trillion this year, increasing by an average of $3 Billion a day, and leaving each US Citizen with $48,000 of debt if we divided it equally. Add to that the average of $20,000 in debt upon graduating university, and the average of $10,700 of household credit card debt, and each American owes around $78,700 personally. Americans carried $886 Billion in credit card debt and had an average of nine credit cards per household in 2006. That number went up to nearly a trillion dollars before dipping in 2010.

The fact is that Americans have bought into an economic system that requires massive debt to function. The average American cannot buy a house, a car, or even a TV without putting themselves in debt, but more than that, they cannot even be considered for a mortgage or car payment plan unless they are able to prove that they have a history of it. Credit checks force each and every American to take out a credit card if they want to be able to someday buy a house. Almost all of the traditional American markers for adulthood revolve around indebting oneself to a ridiculous degree. 

It’s no mystery to me that the national debt would be so high when personal debt is not only accepted but unavoidable. Just across the Atlantic, a credit card is a rare luxury. True, the countries in the European Union also have their fair share of problems with debt. But in sheer numbers, Greece’s debt is $498.3 billion. That’s 30 times smaller than that of the United States. Dividing it equally to compare to our personal burdens in the States, each Greek owes $45,000 in national debt. And yet their debt crisis nearly brought the Eurozone down and caused international panic.

In the United States, individuals must take action to reduce their consumerism and to actively oppose a culture of debt. How? Abandon the traditions of the American Dream that do not serve this generation. Join an Occupy Wall Street movement. Pay off your credit card and live only within your means. Shop for fewer articles of better quality. Repair your broken clothes and recycle them into quilts or pillows. Take a  challenge (ahem…) and commit to changing one spending/shopping habit.

Better yet, take a stand this Black Friday by refusing to participate in the commercial feeding frenzy. Buy absolutely nothing that day. Spend the time you’ll save  volunteering, being with family, reading, or making your own holiday presents by hand. And then take the money you would have spent and support local, quality businesses on Shop Local Saturday.

Check out #BlackoutBlackFriday and #ShopLocalSaturday on Twitter for more information!