As we were crawling through traffic one afternoon, homebound on I-75/85 through downtown Atlanta, the Chainsmoker’s song “Closer” came on the radio. My housemate commented, “I feel like it’s about Millennial poverty”. I’ll admit, we love it. It’s so… Millennial.
Boulder. Tucson. Tattoos. Blink 182. Moved to the city in a broke-down car. We ain’t ever getting older. Man, it’s so catchy.
The class of 2016 has an average of over $37,000 of student debt… Most of us recent college grads have negative net-worth. I don’t really know how non-college grads are doing financially, but especially after reading post-election day analyses, I don’t assume anyone feels like they’re on the fast track to the upper class.
But how uniquely un-restrictive is our young, middle-class, white poverty these days?
“…in the backseat of your Rover that I know you can’t afford”, the Chainsmokers sing to Halsey. New Range Rovers are like $80,000+. Even a used car that’s a fraction of that price will put you out a good chunk of money. Very few people have that kind of cash lying around, but borrowing against one’s parents’ home equity to fund big purchases sure is possible and accessible these days. Owning a nice car doesn’t necessarily mean that you are well-off.
After years of piously throwing away credit card recruitment mail, I finally bowed to the pressure to build credit by signing up for my first Visa through my bank. It came in handy after a quick trip to TJ Maxx turned into a shopping bonanza, with mom amassing a truly impressive pile of children’s clothes in every size for her future foster children… and then having her debit card rejected.
There’s a certainly a thrill in swiping plastic past 3-figure totals (or 4-figure, as I found out with my recent used car purchase. I have yet to experience a 5-figure swipe… heh #goals). Even though I technically earn only $288 a month and buy my food with an EBT card, I have incredible buying power.
For young, middle-class Americans, this has been our reality. But of course, there’s a flip-side to the ease with which we can consume. Many of us have seen our parents buy things they can’t yet afford. No one likes to make payments on these bills, and we’ve seen the stress it can cause. But it’s just so normal to be in debt. Even our country is in debt. It hardly feels real.
Wealth is hard to pin down these days. “Anyone can buy a one-off expensive car,” explains Paul Nunes in Mass Affluence, but owning luxury items is no longer restricted to the economic elite.
“Whether or not someone has a flat-screen TV [or, updated for 2017, an iPhone 8] is going to tell you less than if you look at the services they use, where they live, and the control they have over other people’s labor, those who are serving them,” explains Dalton Conley in Class Matters. So basically—twenty-first century wealth has more to do with where we are and what we are doing (or having done for us), not what we have.
I think that the single biggest consequence of debt for young people (and this is extremely qualified by one’s relative socioeconomic privilege) is its ability to keep us tied down to a “regular” job. As a whole, Millennials don’t lust after their neighbor’s slightly nicer car. We (wander)lust after those who have the freedom to regularly do something exciting or be somewhere amazing.
Which, I think, is why we are more likely to rent a downtown apartment than buy a house. Or eschew a “record” collection in favor of a Spotify Premium subscription. Or forgo early marriage to hike the Appalachian trail. The American dream is changing.
We collect experiences. I think Instagram can back me up on this one.
So I did a super-scientific survey. Eleven Millennial participants were chosen at “random” (from my housemates and friends… but totally random, I swear.) (Mennonites don’t swear.) (Sorry. Okay. Anyway.)
I asked them something along the lines of “If you could have any luxury (non-necessity) item, service, or experience, what would it be?” I got a variety of responses:
One 27-year old male originally said he wanted a nicer car… but after thinking it over, decided an awesome vacation would be better. In fact, 54% said they’d go on a cool trip, with an additional 18% hoping for a move to a new city. Europe was a particularly desirable destination, but the Appalachian Trail, Denver, Alabama, and “the whole world” also got some love from my 20-something friends.
A 21-year old expressed his desire to visit Rio de Janeiro with a personal guide/translator/master chef. A 27-year old immediately exclaimed my favorite idea, which would be for a personal masseuse. A 26-year old hoped for someone to clean up after her cats in her apartment.
I also heard requests for a limitless supply of videogames, tickets to the Bama game, a season pass to a ski resort, and a “bomb” stereo system (specifically one that was “better than the clubs”).
I’m not going to pretend like confirmation bias didn’t play a role here, but I’d say that these Millennials are generally after experiences and services, not commodities.
When one friend posed the question back at me, I responded that if I could have anything in the world, it would be to run in an Olympic Final. He pointed out that career achievements don’t really feel like a luxury. I can’t decide if he’s right. Mostly because I wouldn’t be THAT mad if someone dropped me on the starting line of an Olympic final without me earning it; even coaches can’t get front-row tickets that close to the action.
And, with that… TBC!
The Unpaid Intern: How Semi-Professional Running Can Make You Rich*