Are Millennials Turning Their Backs on the American Dream?


In his classic 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” historian Frederick Jackson Turner spoke of “the expansive character of American life.” Even though the frontier was closing, Turner argued, the fundamental nature of Americans was still defined by their incessant probing for “a new field of opportunity.” Turner’s claim held true for at least a century—during that time, the American spirit generated relentless technological improvement, the gradual creation of a mass middle class, and the integration of ever more diverse immigrants into the national narrative.

Yet today, many consider this modern period of “expansiveness” to be as doomed as the prairie frontier culture whose denouement Turner portrayed. Nothing makes this clearer than the perception of a majority of middle class Americans that their children will not do better than them, with as many as pessimistic about the future as are optimistic. Almost one-third of the public, according to Pew, consider themselves “lower” class , as opposed to middle class, up from barely one quarter in 2008.

Are Young Americans Becoming Herbivores?

To some, this dismal outlook is either inevitable, or even positive, as Americans shift from their historically “expansive” view and embrace a more modest déclassé future. Rather than seek new worlds to conquer, or even hope to retain the accomplishments of prior generations, contemporary young Americans seem destined to confront a world stamped by ever narrowing opportunity, class distinction, and societal stagnation. Once a nation of competitive omnivores and carnivores, America could be turning more docile—a country of content, grazing herbivores.

Just such a diminished world view has already taken root in Japan, particularly among that country’s younger males. Growing up in a period of tepid economic growth, a declining labor market, and a loss of overall competitiveness, Japan’s male “herbivores” are more interested in comics, computer games, and Internet socializing than building a career or even the opposite sex. Marriage and family have increasingly little appeal to them, sentiments they share with most women their age.

This devolved future is widely embraced by both left and right. Libertarian-leaning economist Tyler Cowen identifies a permanent upper class, essentially those who command machines and particularly the software that runs them, while the masses, something like 85 percent of the population, need to adjust to lower living standards, and a diet made up largely of beans and rice.

This approach has appeal to the grandees of finance, who see in a diminishing American dream not only higher relative status for themselves but an opportunity to turn prospective property owners into rental serfs. Large equity funds have been particularly aggressive about buying foreclosed homes and renting them out, often at high rates, to economically distressed families.

This “rentership” society, as first suggested by Morgan Stanley’s Oliver Chang, reflects, in this sense, an almost Marxian dialectic that sees ownership of property concentrating in ever fewer hands. Conservative theorists have little problem with this, since they naturally defend class privileges and are less committed to upward mobility than assuring the relentless triumph of market capitalism.

But the most potent apologists for shrinking the American dream come from the very left which, in the past, once championed broad-based economic growth and upward mobility. Instead, progressives increasingly favor their own version of a “rentership society,” albeit one more regulated than the conservative version, but also accepting , and even encouraging, the proletarianization of the American middle class. (Turning them, in the process, into good, reliable clients of the Democratic Party). Goodbye Levittown, with its promise of property ownership and privacy, and back to the tenements of Brownsville, now dressed up as “hip and cool.”

Some even have suggested getting rid of “middle class norms of decency” governing housing and bringing back the boarding house of the 19th and early 20th Century. The goal, of course, is to facilitate ever more densification of urban areas and to rein in the dreaded suburban “sprawl.”

This tendency to force densification and downgrade ownership is deeply pronounced among urbanists and the green lobby, two groups with ample power in most blue states and regions. “Progressive” theorists such as Richard Florida see wealth transferring to a handful of “spiky” American cities, places such as San Francisco and Manhattan, where even the prospect of home ownership is inconceivable to the vast majority of the population.

There are many others, farther out on the green urbanist track, who believe that the entire notion of middle class upward mobility is too consumption-oriented and, well, sort of in bad taste. They maintain that millennials will not only eschew home ownership but the ownership of automobiles and practically anything else bigger than their beloved electronic gadgets.

Indeed, this transformation would be greeted with enthusiasm by many greens and traditional urbanists. The environmental magazine Grist even envisions “a hero generation” that will escape the material trap of suburban living and work that engulfed their parents. “We know the financial odds are stacked against us, and instead of trying to beat them, we’d rather give the finger to the whole rigged system,” the millennial author concludes.

Are Americans Millennials Victims of Circumstance?

Are young Americans ready to move off the competitive playing field and onto the herbivore pastureland? The economic stagnation certainly seems to have had a negative effect on everything from marriage to fertility rates, which are at their lowest levels in a quarter century. Much like their Japanese counterparts, young Americans increasingly avoid both marriage and having children, according to a recent Pew Foundation study. Despite a total rise in population of 27 million (PDF), there were actually fewer births in 2010 than there were ten years earlier.

Is this a matter of preference or a reaction to hard times?  Hemmed in by college debt and a persistently weak economy, almost 40 percent of the unemployed are between 20 and 34. A smaller percentage of American males between 25 and 34—the key age for prospective families—are in the workforce than at any time since 1948.

One reason some celebrate the rejection of marriage and family is that it undermines the suburban environments that overwhelmingly attract most families. Urban theorists such as Peter Katz maintain that millennials (the generation born after 1983) show little interest in “returning to the cul-de-sacs of their teenage years.” Manhattanite Leigh Gallagher, author of the predictable anti-burbs broadside The Death of Suburbs, asserts with certitude that that “millennials hate the suburbs” and prefer more eco-friendly, singleton-dominated urban environments.

Another apparent casualty here may be entrepreneurship, the very thing that characterized both boomers and their successors, Generation X.  Entrepreneurship rates remain strong among older Americans , but start-up rates among young people look far weaker. Millennials’ experience with the economy makes them, according to generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, “very risk averse,” particularly in comparison with previous generations.

Can millennials recreate the “Expansive” culture in their own image?

Winograd and Hais see millennial timidity as a mostly temporary phenomena. Far from rejecting suburbia, homeownership, and the American dream, millennials are simply seeking to recreate it in their own image. Contrary to the notions promoted by the Wall Street financiers, urban land speculators, and greens, most millennials, particularly those entering their 30s, express a strong desire to own a home, with three times as many eyeing the suburbs as the inner core.

The recession, according to a recent Wilson Center study (PDF), did not kill the desire to own a home among younger people: more than 90 percent of those under 45 said they wanted to own their own residence.    Another survey by TD Bank found that 84 percent of renters aged 18 to 34 intend to purchase a home in the future. And a Better Homes and Gardenssurvey found that three in four sawhomeownership as “a key indicator of success.”

Survey data also suggests that millennials are highly focused on getting married and being good parents. Nearly four in five millennials express a desire to have children. This will become more significant as millennials reach their 30s and early 40s, the prime age for family formation. Over the next decade, at least six million people will be entering their 30s, and that number is expected to keep expanding through 2050.

None of this suggests that, as some social conservatives might hope, that the Ozzie and Harriet family is about to make a major comeback. For one thing, millennials will likely get hitched and have children later than previous generations. Their marriages also will probably be less traditional and male-centered. Hais and Winograd assert that millennials are a “female dominated” generation and have a less traditional view of sex roles—or for that matter, what constitutes a family, since they tend to be highly supportive of same sex marriage.

But if they differ from past generations, most millennials clearly do not aspire to the ideal of singleness and childlessness embraced by more radical boomer enthusiasts. That said, they will not recreate the family or their residence in their parents’ image. They may, for example, be more willing to customize their residences for their own unique needs or for greater energy efficiency, and place greater emphasis on “technology capabilities” than on a larger kitchen, or some more traditional suburbanaccoutrements.

As they get on with life, they will also make new demands on their bosses, warn Hais and Winograd. Companies will need to accommodate as well the new familial arrangements that Millennials are likely to seek out. This means firms will need to adopt policies that favor telecommuting, flexible hours, and maternity and paternity leave that will allow for a better balance between work and personal life.

But in the long run, millennials, if given a chance, are likely to maintain the national ethos of aspiration despite the powerful headwinds they now face. As Turner suggested at the end of his famous essay, it would be “a rash prophet who would assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased.”

The real issue here is not the declining validity of American aspiration, but overcoming the economic, political and social factors that threaten to suffocate it. Similar challenges—the concentration of wealth of the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, war, and environmental angst—have periodically appeared and were eventually addressed through technological innovation, and critical political and social changes. Rather than accept the shrinkage of the American prospect, we should seek ways to restore it for those who will inherit this republic.

This story originally appeared at The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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I guess being part of

I guess being part of millennials is very much expensive and great since you were able to live in a comfortable life and focuses on being part of the high society but nowadays it's not easy to just say that you are part or belong to a high society even just being part of the middle class. If I was able to be surveyed and interviewed of my living I would definitely say I'm just living a simple life and I would prefer to tell those people who are conducting the survey that I belong to a lower class because I'm simply saying in the first place that I'm simply living with a simple life.

I would prefer to agree to this line:

Rather than accept the shrinkage of the American prospect, we should seek ways to restore it for those who will inherit this republic.

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The perspective of a baby boomer can be picked out almost immediately when assessing articles that condescend the "millennial" generation. As a millennial myself I say with almost zero uncertainty that boomers are completely unable to associate with the difficulties faced by the under 30 subset in 2013. We see them everywhere, works that attempt to analyze the socio-cultural movements of younger adults and their habits. And while the analysis may be of use, the fundamental stripe is usually far off....the lack of living wage positions. Yes, I am saying the 08 recession created a culture of indifference towards younger generations. As many low skill boomers were displaced from longtime high earning manufacturing positions, the entry level positions often filled by teens and new college grads are now completely inundated by boomers and gen x'ers adding security to their nest. Among this, the conservative movement to de-franchise the liberal learning institution has only led to further distrust and unfounded anger towards young college educated adults. What is often never mentioned by the boomer penning his "crowning" piece of work attempting to deconstruct the millennial is the absence of truth regarding obtaining financial independence. The boomer was able to obtain credit at a young age, and maintain credit and good financial standing through face to face human interactions at banks and department stores which is merely impossible for the young adult today. These "human" interactions have been displaced by digital algorithms incapable of sensing emotion, or the human element. The notion of becoming financially stable has been reduced to realities of working in a part time zero benefit economy. Thus, the baby boomer who was able to secure their financial foot-holding attempts to analyze current scenarios facing young adults with the deluded memories of 1972. Millennia's are the unfortunate spectators in a play that won't end until the last boomer chooses to walk off the field and finally gives their children a chance at life....but this may be the most difficult thing the "memememe" generation may swallow.

Return on Housing Investment

I think a bit of practical thinking on this issue of Millennials owning, or at least wanting to own their own homes is needed. As a old boomer, it is a great comfort to me and to my wife that we purchased and then paid off our home. Here we are in our late 60s with no payments to make, the place fixed up, and only property taxes, insurance and upkeep to concern us. I figure that to rent a comparable place would cost $4,500 per month, against my current $1,600 per month of basic housing expense. This is a $2,900 per month difference. Additionally, the equity is there to tap in the very deep years to finance the frailty likely to come 15 to 20 years down the road. This is a huge benefit. Given the increasing cost of rental housing in the future, we have some insulation that protects us from one of the acute pains of inflation, which is ever present to us living in the SF Bay Area. Owning outright your own home is good retirement planning, unless you live in an area in decline. Then renting where you work and buying where you plan to retire is the best alternative.

Cashing up is the only real "housing wealth"

Bear in mind that if you sold a typical Bay Area home during a phase of higher prices, you could buy something for a fraction of the cost in an affordable city.

Housing "wealth" from inflated real house prices is only really wealth if it is cashed out. Downsizing is one way to do it, but moving to an affordable city is a real biggie. Check out some RE sites in cities that rate "affordable" in the Demographia Reports.

Gary North once blogged about a Californian who sold his house at the right time (in 2006) for slightly over a million dollars, and bought SEVEN houses in Atlanta with the money. He lived in one and rented the other six out and lived quite comfortably on that income.

The new working-class.

Maybe "middle-class" is and, in America at least, always has been a euphemism for a relatively affluent working-class. (In England it meant the bourgeoisie.) Be that as it may, here is the blurb to my new book, A Part-time Job in the Country:

"In this voluntary utopia, Luke Lea explores a world of small country towns in which people work part-time outside their homes and in their free time build their own houses, cultivate gardens, cook and care for their children and grandchildren, and pursue other leisure-time activities. Houses are grouped around neighborhood greens and people get around town in modified golf-carts. So thoroughly are work and leisure integrated into the fabric of their everyday lives they no longer feel any need to retire, and they can die at home in their beds if they like, cared for by loved ones.

For those who would like to move to this world he provides a map with some directions for how to get there from here."

The UK's entrenchment of privilege

Interestingly, some analysts say (and I agree with them) that the Town and Country Planning system in the UK effectively preserves the privilege for a small minority, of this kind of exurban living, while cramming most of the workforce into higher and higher density housing within growth boundaries.


"Conservative theorists have little problem with this, since they naturally defend class privileges and are less committed to upward mobility than assuring the relentless triumph of market capitalism."

This seems like a caricature of conservatism, sort of a Thurston Howell, III landed-gentry, but possibly I don't know of, or have read, the "conservative theorists" to whom you refer. When I look at the elites and upper class on both coasts and major cities in the Midwest like Chicago, they indeed defend class privilege based on wealth, connections and education, but I see a blue model and liberal elitism, not a conservative theory. Conservatives believe in true market capitalism (not elite crony capitalism of rent seekers) that allow small businesses to grow and for their owners to be upwardly mobile.

I am guessing you wrote this sentence to be balanced, but in the case of the type of society that you are describing in your article and every other example you use or reference, this is clearly a desired outcome by the softly totalitarian left.

With that said, I do believe it is a sad state of affairs for our country and truly hope it is temporary. Hopefully the animal spirits of the millennial generation is merely dormant, not dead.

It's true in the UK, but you're right about America

"Conservatism" in the UK is very much about the entrenchment of privilege when it comes to housing and urban planning.

Of course even over there, there is a toxic alliance between this and the lefty-progressive faith in "planning". The "Labour" Party in the UK long since ceased to represent actual working-class people and their aspirations, and the Tories have never bothered to try and capture this constituency off them.

It's not just Millennials...

It's not just Millennials. Retiring boomers are turning their backs on homeownership by at least 50%


Odd - do they not expect to live long enough to run out of money to pay the rent?

I'd like to see more analysis on this.