The Corner

Economy & Business

Prosperous Millennials?

A man looks at real estate listings at an office in Brooklyn, N.Y, March 21, 2017. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

I don’t think anyone here will argue with Jim Geraghty that Charlotte Alter’s claim that millennials have “never experienced American prosperity” is wrong. But I think it’s interesting to consider why some millennials might not believe that they’re experiencing prosperity, because I don’t think the sources of millennial malaise are totally irrational.

Take the real-estate market. Jim points out it has recovered since the 2008 crash, which destroyed a staggering amount of value in homeowner equity and put existential stress on financial institutions. That recovery is good news, both for homeowners and in general. But top-line economic statistics are coarse-grained and can conceal certain dynamics. The renewed rise in housing prices is also associated with a decline in fertility rates, which makes sense if you assume that most people wait to start a family until they can afford a house. Meanwhile for renters, high property values mean high rents, especially in economically productive, heavily regulated cities like New York and San Francisco. Millennials might not be moved by the rise in real-estate prices if that rise puts a home, and a family, out of reach, or if it freezes them out of job opportunities in high-productivity cities.

(There’s another dynamic here, which is that well-educated creative-class millennials — including, as Jim notes, Charlotte Alter — who already congregate in these cities tend to play an outsize role in advocating social change: The Williamsburg caucus of the Brooklyn DSA are Theda Skocpol’s “marginal elites.”)

David McWilliams, in an provocative column for the Financial Times, argues that this dynamic has contributed to the leftward drift among millennials:

Soaring asset prices, particularly property prices, drive a wedge between those who depend on wages for their income and those who depend on rents and dividends. This wages versus rents-and-dividends game plays out generationally, because the young tend to be asset-poor and the old and the middle-aged tend to be asset-rich. . . . While average hourly earnings have risen in the US by just 22 per cent over the past 9 years, property prices have surged across US metropolitan areas. Prices have risen by 34 per cent in Boston, 55 per cent in Houston, 67 per cent in Los Angeles and a whopping 96 per cent in San Francisco. The young are locked out.

Because I’m not a historical materialist, I don’t think millennial malaise is a product only of high rents or student debt (I’d recommend reading Park MacDougald on its non-material basis.) And Alter’s claim was about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leading a movement to rectify supposed millennial indigence, which is doubly off (as if AOC were leading a push for land-use deregulation). But if, for example, the strong real-estate market really does mean that young people are marginally less likely to buy houses and start families, or to take a job opportunity in a high-productivity cities, then we can agree that even in conditions of broad economic prosperity, citing GDP and asset-price growth won’t be enough to convince them that all is well.

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