For Talking Points Memo.
It’s not about smart phones, selfies or social media. The reason Millennials aren’t making some of life’s biggest purchases is because we’re broke. As James Carville might say, “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Reading the money pages of popular publications as a Millennial can be infuriating. Every other article seems to stumble through clumsy speculation about my generation’s financial decisions, as if we’re so mysterious.
On Tuesday, CNBC asked, if housing is getting more affordable, “why aren’t Millennials buying?” A piece in USA Today last month called us “skittish from the recession"—Hmm, wonder why?—and Bloomberg Businessweek thinks we’re just discerning shoppers. The most egregious of the what’s-up-with-Millennials articles, however, is still a 2012 piece for The Atlantic that called Millennials “The Cheapest Generation.” It expended more than 2,000 words to explain “why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.”
“The largest generation in American history might never spend as lavishly as its parents did—nor on the same things,” it reads. “Since the end of World War II, new cars and suburban houses have powered the world’s largest economy and propelled our most impressive recoveries. Millennials may have lost interest in both.”
The word “debt” appears only once in the entire piece.
The suggestion that Millennials are forgoing major financial decisions, like buying a car or first home, because of generational values is an unnecessary stretch—especially in the presence of consistent, reliable economic data that shows we’re currently just too saddled with student loan debt and low-wage jobs to buy big-ticket items.
In fact, nine in 10 Millennials say they want to own a home but, nationwide, less than half of for-sale homes are within reach of the median-income Millennials.
The median annual income of adults 25 to 34 years old with a bachelor's degree is nearly $50,000 annually, according to U.S. Department of Education. Despite that sad statistic, Millennials still find a way make up nearly a third of recent homebuyers. And what’s clear is that the Millennials who bought homes can better afford to do so. The National Association of Realtors found that the median income for homebuyers under 33 was $73,600—significantly higher than that of most Millennials.
None of this data is particularly new or especially hard to find. So why the insistence by journalists and analysts on a cultural explanation for Millennial buying trends when more likely factors are in plain sight?
Well, because the truth is pretty inconvenient.
When the American public stops focusing on the minor cultural idiosyncrasies of Millennials, it’ll have to reckon with an economic system rigged against Millennials that badly needs fixing. We’ll have to rethink the affordability of higher education and take a real look at income inequality in this country. The folks with the most to lose if that ever happens are the Baby Boomers—like the editors who’ve been commissioning hit pieces on Millennials.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Demos’ blog, PolicyShop.