It’s interesting that the authors of an article about the youngest generation (Generation Y or Millennials) title their piece “A Return to 'Avalon,'” a cultural reference that people born between 1982 and 2003 surely know nothing about. “Avalon” is a movie from 1990 directed by Barry Levinson (born in 1942) which takes place at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure whom the authors are writing for, but I’ve never seen “Avalon” and had to look up the plot on IMDB -- and I’m almost 40 years old!
Okay, this is picking nits. Nonetheless, writing about generations is pretty tricky stuff. To make sweeping generalizations is perilous at best, and forecasting the preferences of a group whose oldest members are only 26 years of age seems to me of marginal utility. And this comes from the author of a recently released generational book “Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction.” So I know wherefore I speak. Taking stock of things as they are is one thing, but as the saying goes, prediction is very hard, especially about the future.
The authors write, “Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, members of the largest, most diverse … generation in American history are becoming adults, entering the workforce, getting married and settling down.” Really? I’m guessing nearly 80 percent of the group they’re talking about isn’t even out of school yet, and some only recently out of diapers! Even the definition of “Millennials” is likely to change over time as it did for Generation X (which started out as Boomerangers or Baby-Busters until Douglas Coupland published his demographically defining novel). Are today’s five year-olds going to have similar preferences for things such as housing as people in their early to mid-twenties in 2008?
Just for fun, let’s just take a look at a few of the predictions about Generation X.
Circa 1985, before Generation X was known as such, we were going to have it pretty cushy in almost every way. As Baby-Boomers aged their way through society, vast opportunities would open up for the next, smaller generation -- from colleges competing for applicants, to magnificent career opportunities as companies needed labor, to an abundance of affordable housing as Boomers traded up. But when Gen X was entering college, not only had it become increasingly competitive, that was the beginning of the student loan explosion as costs escalated. Moving up the corporate ladder has not been quite so easy as the world of work radically changed since the 1980s and Boomers continue to work into their 60s. Abundant affordable housing has hardly been the case, even after the housing bubble began to deflate. No matter how cheap housing gets, if you can’t get a mortgage, it’s not affordable.
So Alex P. Keaton of the TV show “Family Ties” -- a garden-variety suburban kid from Ohio who rebelled against his hippy-dippy parents with his “conservative” politics (which look pretty moderate by today’s standards) -- was supposed to be a millionaire by the age of 30. But things didn’t quite work out that way, not even on TV. Nonetheless, predictions were made about the “preferences” of this generation based on circumstances at the time.
This was, of course, before Generation X morphed from Reagan Youth-wannabe yuppies in the 1980s to politically apathetic and cynical Slackers in the 1990s -- as if being under-employed was a personal choice and not a consequence of the economic conditions brought about by globalization and technological efficiencies that eliminated jobs and put downward pressure on entry-level wages. But then came the dot.com bubble and Xers were back to the future of “greed is good,” albeit it this time in Silicon Valley instead of on Wall Street. And on it goes as we continue to be whipsawed by the economy.
So for the authors to dismiss out of hand changing economic circumstances, as they do with the following statement, is to skate on some very thin ice, indeed:
“Despite the problems posed by high gas prices and the mortgage crisis, suburban growth is still outpacing that of both urban and rural areas, as not only homeowners but also businesses continue to locate in the suburbs. The desire of Americans for their own plot of land likely will continue well into the 21st century as well. The community- and family-orientation of the Millennial Generation will only reinforce the continued growth of America's suburbs.”
High gas prices and the mortgage crisis have only been an issue for about a year now -- hardly enough time to reverse suburbanization, a decades-long pattern of development. Due to its very nature, the real estate market is slow to adapt to changing circumstances. So Americans might “prefer” to own their own plot of land in suburbia, but fewer people are going to be able to, and that might be a good thing. I might prefer to eat a big juicy steak every night for dinner -- but it’s not necessarily good for me or the rest of the environment. I’m not predicting the demise of suburbia, but people are going to change their “preferences” as external circumstances warrant, from taking mass transit to living in more densely populated, walkable neighborhoods -- whether in cities or suburbs.
Lastly, to say that people who are “community and family-oriented” prefer the suburbs strikes me as a notion from another era -- like Jefferson arguing in favor of an agrarian society because it’s more community and family-oriented. “Community” and “family-oriented” are pretty nebulous terms to begin with, but assuming we agree on what they mean and are good things, clearly “community” and “family” can be created and found in all kinds of environments – and found lacking in all kinds of environments.
So one thing I think we can safely say to people under the age of 30: don’t trust people over 30 who are trying to make predictions about your future. They will be wrong. Heck, given the food crisis, we may be headed back to a Jeffersonian agrarian society!
Lisa Chamberlain is the author of “Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction.” She lives in New York City.