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Gen Zers and millennials have serious economic anxiety.
Factors at play include a shaky economy, student debt payments, inflation, and healthcare costs.
But the biggest issue is probably a housing market that simply feels unfair.
Gen Zers and millennials are anxious.
You see it in survey results. You sense it in anti-capitalist TikTok videos. You hear about it when talking to your friends or colleagues, or if you’re a parent of a 20-something or 30-something, from your kids. This economy has younger Americans on edge.
Here’s just a sampling of recent research:
A new survey from Deloitte found the high cost of living is the “top societal concern” of both generations, according to my colleague Josée Rose. More than half of both generations said they live paycheck to paycheck.A study by TIAA Institute earlier in the year found that 41% of young adults said their finances control their lives. Gen Zers are missing their credit-card payments at an increasing rate, per the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.And in the workplace, 32% of young adults (18 to 29-years old) said they are not satisfied with their pay, and 34% aren’t happy with their opportunities for promotion, per Pew.
But there’s arguably no bigger factor than housing.
“I think if you talk to people my age or younger who are salty about capitalism,’ two things have really driven their discontent,” influential writer and geriatric millennial Matt Yglesias noted earlier this year. “One was the long, weak labor market in the wake of the Great Recession, and the other is how badly the housing market functions.”
When you look at the housing market, it’s particularly grim right now. For example:
The rent-to-income ratio, or the share of American household gross income needed to rent an average-priced apartment, stood at 29.6% in the first quarter, according to Moody’s. That’s up from 22.5% back in 1999.The number of metro markets where the average figure exceeds 30%, which is the threshold at which renters are considered to be rent burdened, now stands at seven. Back in 1999, there was just one: New York. The housing market has never been this unaffordable for new buyers, according to my colleague Phil Rosen, citing data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.This lack of affordability isn’t just in a handful of coastal markets, either. Of the largest 25 markets, just four are considered affordable, where monthly payments on new mortgages are less than 25% of household income, per Goldman Sachs. And for those who can afford to buy their own place, they’re getting less house per dollar spent. Whereas $300,000 could have bought a roughly 2,000 square-foot home in March 2000, today the same amount might buy a 1,400-square-foot property, according to data cited by my colleague James Rodriguez.
Yes, some of those other factors, like healthcare costs or student debt loads, have also gotten much worse in that time too. For example, health insurance premium contributions and deductibles totaled 11.6% of median income in 2020, up from 9.1% in 2010, per the Commonwealth Fund.
But while Americans have different health situations (and lifestyles and levels of student debt), all of them live somewhere. And whereas shoppers can trade down to cheaper brands when facing inflation, or potentially put off medical care to save money, the amount they pay to keep a roof over their head is pretty rigid.
Together, those factors are pushing an increasing share of young Americans to delay renting their own place. In 2021, 68% of 25-year olds were living outside their parents’ home, according to Pew, down from 84% in 1980.
For those who are able to rent, the monthly checks to their landlords are taking up a bigger and bigger share of their income.
And while many, many millennials and Gen Zers are able to buy (30% of 25-year olds own their own home, per RedFin, while 62% of 40-year olds own their home), their budget isn’t going as far. They’re getting less square footage per dollar spent, and new buyers are facing mortgage rates near their highest in more than two decades.
Back in 2021, John Myers, Ben Southwood, and Sam Bowman wrote in journal Works in Progress that a shortage of housing and associated high rents and housing values had contributed to slow economic growth, poor health, climate change, falling fertility, and more.
Two years on, the article is worth revisiting, given in many cases the outlook for renters and wannabe homebuyers has only gotten worse. They wrote then:
Many young people have had to delay forming families and often take poorly paid, insecure jobs that can barely cover rent and living costs as the price for living in culturally attractive cities. They see opportunity as limited and growth as barely perceptible. Meanwhile, older generations sit on housing property worth many times what they paid and, stuck in a zero-sum mindset, often prioritise the protection of their own neighborhoods over the need to build more homes. Can you blame young people who resent older people, and the West’s economic system itself, when this is what it offers them?