When I was a kid, I remember hearing my parents and their pals bemoan the state of education and, particularly, the "new math" (which had, in fact, long been out of mode by the time I was in school).
Now, I have a teenage kid, so I was particularly intrigued to read an article the other day about all the "new" educational approaches that are deleting entire skills from the curriculum, based on the infusion of technology into students’ lives.
For example, the state of Indiana recently announced that its schools will now teach keyboard proficiency instead of cursive handwriting.
Today’s teens text as much as — or more than — they talk. And they certainly type vastly more than they write by hand. So, while this shift, which Time magazine heralded a couple of years ago as "The Death of Handwriting," has caused an understandable hue and cry among parents and traditionalists, it does actually move curriculum closer to the lives students are already living, for better or for worse.
I thought I’d been witnessing a similar generational shift in the real estate world, a shift of attitudes away from the inherent preference of homeownership that my generation and those older tend to hold. I’m a card-carrying member of Gen X (which, by the way, sounds younger than it actually is — Gen Xers are those born between 1966-81, give or take).
While my peers and I might work 10 or more jobs in our careers, as opposed to our parents’ one or two, we agree with our parents’ generation — and their parents — on at least one thing: Homeownership is desirable, and when you can afford to buy, you should. (Or, at least we did think so, by and large, before this real estate recession.)
Gen Yers, though, are the first generation to have lived their formative years through this recession, and been old enough to have an opinion on homebuying shaped thereby.
And for months — even years — of this down market, I’ve heard many a Gen Yer express that they have only ever known real estate ownership to be more of a burden than a blessing, that they’ve known many friends or family members who have been affected by foreclosure or forced to short-sell, and that they just don’t "get it" — with "it" being why homeownership is even viewed as desirable by older people.
This generation never experienced owning a home that doubled or tripled in value in a year’s time; never experienced a market in which they could literally name their price for their home — and get dozens of offers; and never was able to watch their net worth skyrocket, all on the power of their property.
So, in some ways, Gen Y could be called "Gen Rent." To them, renting seems much more sustainable and less risky. It also seems less burdensome from a lifestyle perspective, offering both freedom from home maintenance concerns and geographic freedom — the ability to move on a moment’s (or a month’s) notice across the country, if necessary, to follow a career opportunity or a relationship.
But recently I realized that some of Gen Y’s conversion to Gen Rent might be based less on mindset — the preference of renting over homeowning — and based more on access — or their perception that their access to homeownership is dramatically limited.
I’ve come into contact with Gen Renters who are voracious savers; meticulous about retirement planning — in their 20s; hard-core career strategizers; and who say they would also love to own their home but don’t see it as realistic or possible.
They’ve read up and know that mortgages are hard to come by. They know down payment requirements are tightening up. They might not have the years of steady income in the same field or bulked-up savings accounts it takes to qualify for a home loan, and even those with great educations and jobs don’t feel they can comfortably or sustainably afford a home in many of the high-priced areas where jobs are plentiful.
My conversations with these Gen Renters have caused me to suspect that this shift away from homebuying might be, like the shift away from handwriting, a sign that they are simply aligning their behavior patterns with the new reality of their daily lives in today’s real estate market.
So, rather than those who believe in the power of homeownership trying to argue Gen Renters into believing, too, perhaps that effort is better spent encouraging them to keep on saving, supporting them as they move their way up the career ladder, and making the sort of sound real estate and mortgage decisions that will hopefully — eventually — heal the market.
If the new normal is a slower, saner, safer real estate market for us all, then here’s to the new normal.