Millennials Aren't Cheap, They're Broke

Millennials, that perennial favorite topic of pundits, are back in the news. This time they’ve been dubbed the “Cheapest Generation” in a recent piece in the Atlantic Monthly.

Fair assessment? Or fairly out to lunch?

“Millennials,” announce the authors, “have turned against both cars and houses in dramatic and historic fashion.” Among the many reasons given for this curious circumstance are new mobile technologies “enabling a different kind of consumption” and patterns of re-urbanization.

The authors do allow that “the Great Recession is responsible for some of the decline” in purchasing. But they worry that young folks just don’t seem to want to spend as lavishly as their parents did, which is a problem because since the end of World War II, new cars and houses have powered the American economy. “Millennials may have lost interest in both,” they warn. They’re more interested in their smartphones than a new ride or a phat pad.

Here’s another thought: they’re broke. Granted, that’s not as sexy for magazine writers to talk about as sussing out cultural and demographic trends. But it’s awfully hard to buy a house or a car when any of the following apply:

  • You are in student debt up to your eyeballs.
  • You can’t find a job.
  • When you do find a job, that job is insecure, low-wage, with few to no benefits.

A company called Revolution, which examines consumer behavior, came out with a report October 13 that the authors of the Atlantic Monthly piece might have consulted before labeling millennials cheap:

“[The report] revealed key motivations behind why millennials are buying fewer cars. And, contrary to many of the reasons cited in hundreds of articles and reports, the bottom line is clear —they don’t have enough money to buy vehicles due to the continuing weak economy.”


The Great Recession amplified the unemployment and poor jobs and crap wages, but the tale began around the time millennials were born in the 1980s, when Reagan convinced much of America that laissez faire capitalism was the ticket to good times. That was true for a tiny portion of the country, which may now be observed buying McMansions and yachts. But pretty much everyone else, from the middle class on down, got screwed, and the screws are tightening every day.

Millennials have never seen a world in which union-bashing, outsourcing, shareholder value ideology, crap temp jobs, stagnant wages, and growing inequality were not the norm. Most millennials did not go to college, and if they have a high school diploma, it’s worth less than it was than for any generation that came before. Many of the college-educated started out getting exploited as unpaid interns, then didn’t get the jobs they were promised, and subsequently found themselves struggling for one gig after another with plummeting hopes of forging a meaningful career.  

Yet pundits are constantly exploring the choices these young people are making as if there is some great mystery to be divined. They aren’t getting married! They’re still living at home with their parents! It must be because they are lazy, or immature, or indecisive, or turning away from consumption for ideological reasons.

No, they just don’t have any money. And money is what you need to do stuff like get married and set up your own household and buy expensive items.

True, you may lose some interest in things you can’t afford to buy and redirect your attention and efforts to stuff that is more attainable. So you think about sharing an apartment instead of a buying a house, or sharing a Zipcar instead of buying your own snazzy new automobile. But these decisions may have a lot more to do with the fact that you just can’t afford what your parents had at your age than some grand urge to live with a small footprint or not to be a spendthrift.

To be young is to be selfish and want things for yourself. It’s hard to imagine that the majority of young people are saying, “No, I don’t think I’ll opt for my own apartment, but rather deal with noisy roommates because really I’m just kind of cheap/environmentally conscious/more interested in downloading apps on my smartphone.” They may be looking for things besides cars and houses to make them happy, and maybe that’s not a bad development in many ways, but it probably isn’t because they are so fundamentally different than generations past. They are simply trying to deal with the raw deal that has been handed to them as best they can. Some pundits describe this as a pragmatic response to the “new economy.” You might also call it trying to survive. Let’s examine what they’re up against.

  • Millennials have the highest unemployment rate of any generation.
  • They have more student loan debt than Gen Xers and Boomers did at their age.
  • More millennials live in poverty than previous generations did at the same stage of life.
  • They make up 61 percent of Americans making minimum wage.
  • Having entered the workforce during an economic downturn, the effects on their future wages will likely be permanent, even if the economy bounces back.

Millennials need decent jobs. They need the power to bargain with employers. They need health insurance that does not suck. They need student debt forgiveness. They need investment in America’s infrastructure. Given that policy in America is currently dictated by the desires of the one percent, which has gotten control of much our political system, they probably aren’t going to get these things anytime soon.

But there are 80 million of them. That’s 25 percent of the U.S. population, and if they could organize themselves, they would be a powerful force to take on the forces that would deprive them of a decent future.


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