If America is going to keep existing, then young people are going to have to form households. You can’t sleep on Twitter or take a shower on Instagram or raise a child on Facebook. At least not exclusively. A generation often characterized by its digital connections still has to go somewhere. So how should a good millennial live?
There are three main options, though very few people have all of them. A third of 18-34 year olds live in households headed by a parent or other family member according to a Pew Research survey from July. A smaller portion, 14 percent, own their own home, many of whom received help from their parents with the down payment. For the plurality there’s renting, and paying half their income is normal, especially in high-cost cities where young adults are concentrated.
In the public imagination, all of these millennials are worth mocking. Whether they’re stuck in their parents’ basement watching YouTube, blowing all their money on a room the size of a closet just to play hipster and ruin some city, or living the homeowner’s dream on mommy and daddy’s largess, there’s a joke there. A smart, innovative young person should be able to come up with a shelter solution that’s affordable and sustainable. And, since young workers should be flexible, so should their housing. Why can’t this disruptive generation create a new paradigm?
In October, the media found the millennial housing icon we had all been waiting for. Not only was this pseudonymous 23 year old (“Brandon”) so smart he landed a coveted job at Google, he was too smart to rent an apartment in the notoriously expensive Bay Area. "I realized I was paying an exorbitant amount of money for the apartment I was staying in — and I was almost never home," Business Insider quoted him glowingly. "It's really hard to justify throwing that kind of money away. You're essentially burning it — you're not putting equity in anything and you're not building it up for a future — and that was really hard for me to reconcile." With millennial student loans to pay back and a Baby Boomer desire to invest, he didn’t have money for housing. What’s a smart kid to do?
These are the sort of stories of personal adversity that usually end in the millennial creating a new app or web service that solves his problem. It’s a well-worn narrative of innovation, where an unconventionally creative mind runs up against a seemingly unsolvable problem. From the media reaction, you might think this young Googler invented something. Brandon earned a laudatory shoutout on the Today Show, and Refinery 29 jealously announced he was saving “SO MUCH MONEY.” How exactly did this hero disrupt housing? He lives in a truck.
Since Google offers him 24-hour access to the building, as well as showers and food, this enterprising employee decided to do the closest thing he could to living at his desk: He moved into a 128-square-foot box on the back of a 2006 Ford in the company parking lot. Recognizing Brandon’s clever thinking, Google has allowed him to go on crashing, and he chronicles his day-to-day on his blog “Thoughts from Inside the Box.” Far from calling him deranged, with the exception of a few jokes about sex, the media thought it was a good idea. “Saving on rent has allowed him to dine at nice restaurants and enjoy San Francisco more than if he opted for living in an apartment,” Business Insider nodded approvingly, as if living inside a small box were a wise choice.
Brandon isn’t the only millennial getting applauded for living in a parking lot. In March, Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Daniel Norris earned an ESPN profile and a short Vice Sports documentary for the van where he spent spring training. Despite signing a $2 million deal, the 22-year-old Norris lived in a 1978 VW camper that he parked at a 24-hour Wal Mart after the police kicked him off the beach. Like Brandon, Norris’s media attention was laudatory, framing him as a free spirit and deep thinker. “There he is each evening, making French press coffee and organic stir-fry on his portable stove,” Eli Saslow wrote for ESPN. “There he is at night, wearing a spelunking headlamp to go with his unkempt beard, writing in his ‘thought journal’ or rereading Kerouac.” Norris sounds like a millennial superhero.
The best place a millennial can take shelter, according to the media reaction, seems to be in a car near work. In both of these stories the main characters are, of course, homeless. It’s important that in both cases that the young men in question are not poor or desperate. In fact, they’re both employed and quite well-off. There are plenty of young homeless people, but no national news outlets are covering the clever ingenuity they use to survive. Instead, municipal ordinances against sleeping in cars are on the rise, up 119 percent between 2011 and 2014. Norris and Brandon both could afford conventional housing if they wanted to, they have simply thought better of it. A model millennial has to be both rich and homeless.
To pull off homelessness in a way that impresses national news outlets, it helps to have a job almost no one can get, like Google programmer or professional athlete. “Freelance writer lives in a truck” is less attractive. Thankfully there’s another innovation that’s one step up: tiny houses. These micro-dwellings are just what the name implies, they’re entire homes (kitchen, bathroom, bed, desk) that could fit inside a McMansion living room. Sometimes they’re on wheels, sometimes not, but they’re supposed to be a millennial-sized answer to shelter.
A few years ago the tiny house movement was just for hard-core hippies and sharing-economy fundamentalists, but as the idea has spread its been associated with young Americans. “Will Millennials Be The Tiny-House Generation?” Slate wondered. Millennial Magazine was a little more ominous with “Are Millennials Destined For Tiny Houses?” Their central appeal is cost: Tiny houses are cheap, usually under $50,000, making them affordable for a larger percentage of young workers. But there’s also something nice about not taking up more space than necessary or paying for rooms you then need to fill with more stuff you have to buy. Since young people are waiting longer to couple and reproduce, a tiny lifestyle sounds smart.
Earlier this month, we saw the first attempt at tiny house public policy. A Washington, D.C., councilman introduced a proposal that would see the city build one thousand of these structures throughout the city and sell them exclusively to millennials and low-income buyers. The Washington City Paper reported that the initiative probably violates fair housing law and “almost certainly” won’t pass, but the idea itself is interesting. Rather than push for higher wages or to keep current housing stock affordable, it’s easier to innovate a reduction in average living space.
The model tiny houses do look cool, in a Scandinavian prison cell sort of way, but it’s important to take a step back and think about what’s going on. The Millennial Housing Lab, a project of Harvard business, law, and design students dedicated their first project to expanding the tiny house movement. They were trying to build something that made for “reduced cost, reduced environmental impact and a healthier lifestyle.” And what they come up with are 160-foot wooden boxes they’ve located in the forests of Massachusetts. The future of millennial housing, according to Harvard’s best minds, is a shack in the woods.
What are we to make of this strange thinking? What’s so exciting about the idea of millennials living in boxes? Part of the appeal is ecological; suburban living with its high carbon emissions and water-wasting lawns has been an—if not the—ideal form of American shelter for many decades, but young people see it as increasingly unsustainable environmentally. Higher population density is a sensible urban planning solution. If wealthy older Americans don’t plan to change their lifestyles, than they at least appreciate the idea of younger people taking it upon themselves to fix things. Like vegetarianism, small living is thoughtful, responsible consumption.
Meanwhile, not everyone is forsaking indoor plumbing. Corporate profits have grown nearly twice as fast as national productivity since 1990, and they are well recovered from the 2008 crisis. While most people make do with less, a lucky few are cleaning up the surplus. It shows in the housing market too; ownership rates for young workers may be down, but the National Association of Realtors reported that 1.13 million vacation homes were sold in 2014, a new record that tops even pre-crisis 2006. “Affluent households have greatly benefited from strong growth in the stock market in recent years,” the Association’s Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said. “Furthermore, last year’s impressive increase also reflects long-term growth in the numbers of baby boomers moving closer to retirement and buying second homes to convert into their primary home in a few years.”
If we were really undergoing a social shift toward small, thrifty living, it would be manifesting at the top as well. But while the wealthy plot to ensure decades of low-density retirement life, the vision of millennials sleeping in the backs of cars ready to roll down the road as soon as they’re not needed or packed together in minimal-sized pods sounds more like a trap than an opportunity. We would have to be real suckers to fall for the old “Sleeping in your car is cool!” trick.
For millennials, whose generational identity has been crafted by media outlets they don’t own (like this one), it’s hard to differentiate our own desires from what’s desired of us. Compared to an apartment or a house, living in a truck or a tiny house, it should go without saying, is a decline in living conditions. As is paying 42 percent of your income for shelter today instead of 25 percent in 1998, like residents of New York City do. By characterizing millennials as lifestyle innovators, the class that owns the media can rebrand living with less as a cool trend for the kids.
From this perspective, a lot of our sparkling innovations are glorified infrastructure for declining living standards. “Gypsy cabs” are a longstanding part of the urban economy, but Uber offers a brand. Tenants have been taking in extra boarders to help pay the rent for centuries, but AirBnB legitimizes the practice in the eyes of regulators. An ad for the app Wallapop shows a young man racing to sell his possessions so he can afford to take his girlfriend on a date. The app Letgo does the same thing, and it advertises during the same programs. Clearly the venture capitalists funding these companies think youth desperation is a growth industry. The billion-dollar question is which platforms can make it feel normal.
There’s nothing wrong with young people wanting to live well and independently, not at the expense of their parents, low-income longtime residents, or the environment. That’s what the fantasy of the model millennial living in a box is about, and that’s what makes parts of it very appealing. It would be great if Americans got used to taking up less residential space and filling it with less clutter. Cutting the transportation associated with our way of life may even be essential for the persistence of humans on Earth.
But in a system where every personal sacrifice turns up on some corporate balance sheet, where the workers living in trucks—celebrated and not—create the profits that buy vacation homes, it’s impossible to separate innovation and exploitation. When we talk about where good millennials should live, we’re ignoring more important questions about who owns land, how much, and why. Young Americans can’t allow ourselves to be divided and distracted into accepting a world that continues to award less to more and more to fewer.
Malcolm Harris is a freelance writer and an editor at The New Inquiry. He lives in Brooklyn.