Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

Assessing the wants and needs of millennials

Even before I read the article in the September issue of Atlantic magazine, I figured it had grim implications for Hernando County.

Its title is The Cheapest Generation (bit.ly/cheapestgeneration) and its subtitle is Why Millennials aren't buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.

Obviously, whatever it means for the nation, it means something worse for a state that built its economy on housing.

And if it's bad for Florida, it's extremely bad for Hernando. For many years, just about all we did here was sell houses to people who didn't mind regularly heading elsewhere for jobs or recreation by hopping into their cars.

I don't want to restate the obvious, to pile on. We already know Hernando's economy was too dependent on home-building. Our rates of foreclosure and unemployment tell us all we need to know about how hard the recession hit and how slowly we've recovered.

And if we hit bottom last year, when the county issued only 124 permits for single-family homes, the climb out hasn't exactly been dizzying. This year's total through the end of July was 90 permits.

The purpose here is just to point out that there are now even more compelling reasons to jump on any coherent proposal to steer a new course, and that includes county business development coordinator Mike McHugh's plan for an adult technical education program at Nature Coast Technical High School.

So, beyond the headline, what is the Atlantic story's evidence that Hernando's historical economic model may, in fact, be history?

In 2010, according to writers Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann, "adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down, too."

Their data on home buying, meanwhile, comes from a study by a group affiliated with Harvard University: "Between 2006 and 2011, the home ownership rate among adults younger than 35 fell by 12 percent, and nearly 2 million more of them — the equivalent of Houston's population — were living with their parents."

Of course young people are buying fewer homes and cars, you might say. In this economy, everybody is.

Yes, the story says, a simple lack of funds is definitely at play here — not just fewer jobs, but a greater debt burden from student loans that has forced young people to delay major purchases.

But also at play is evidence of shifting values that, for example, make younger people more interested in living in connection with neighbors than impressing them with raw square footage.

"The old cul-de-sacs of Revolutionary Road and Desperate Housewives have fallen out of favor with Generation Y. (Not to mention, I thought, limerock roads in Royal Highlands.) Rising instead are both city centers and what some developers call 'urban light' — denser suburbs that revolve around a walkable town center."

And many parents of teenagers I've talked to have noticed another trend these writers identified — that cars and driving just don't mean as much to young people as they did when we were their age.

Remember how you just had to have your license when you turned 16? With phones and laptops offering access to friends, information and entertainment, my kids — a lot of kids, I've learned — don't feel that way.

"If the Millennials are not quite a post-­driving and post-owning generation, they'll almost certainly be a less-­driving and less-­owning generation," Thompson and Weissmann wrote.

So what, some Realtors might say.

The future of real estate in Hernando, at least the near future, depends not on young people but older ones: the much-touted 77 million baby boomer retirees.

As I mentioned earlier, however, this Atlantic report is not the only evidence forecasting the long-term demise of an economy built on attracting new residents. The great mass of it was compiled in a story (bit.ly/onceandfuture) in Sunday's Perspective section by Tampa Bay Times staffer Michael Kruse.

Among the factors he noted: Baby boomers are more likely to wait longer to retire and, once they do, to stay put.

Said one expert Kruse quoted: "The plausibility of a great retirement in a place like Florida is diminishing."

So, yes, we need a Plan B.

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