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8 February 2022

Boomer mathematics: why older generations insist that millennials are financially inept

Why can't older generations understand the millennial struggle to buy a house? They inflate the cost of young people having fun.

By Sarah Manavis

It’s a word that disappeared as quickly as it arose: avocado. From the mid-2010s, it became the go-to cliché for older and middle-aged people to mock a younger generation’s struggle to buy a home. The idea was that millennials had no financial sense and frittered their money away on expensive breakfasts in restaurants, which was keeping them from building up their savings. No one could really believe millennials were literally spending all of their money on avocados (or, more specifically, avocado toast), but avocado-spending was supposedly indicative of the spoiled, expensive lives that young people wanted but could not actually afford to enjoy. 

Over the past few years, that word has largely fallen out of use as its enthusiasts have noticed it was getting less and less attention, and realised they had to shift gears to continue making the same point in a way that didn’t immediately trigger eye-rolls. The “avocado” should now be implied, but not explicitly mentioned.

There are hundreds of examples of this new form of the same argument, but the greatest one was uttered this weekend, when Kirstie Allsopp, presenter of the TV show Location, Location, Location, gave an interview with the Sunday Times.

In the piece, headlined “Of course young people can afford a home — just move somewhere cheaper”, Allsopp argued that millennials could buy houses if they looked somewhere beyond London and made changes to their lifestyles – changes she believes would allow them to save tens of thousands of pounds. “When I bought my first property, going abroad, the easyJet, coffee, gym, Netflix lifestyle didn’t exist,” she said, implying that these are the main drains on young people’s finances, forcing them to keep renting because they cannot save up for a deposit. She also suggested they could skip going to university and live with their parents. “I used to walk to work with a sandwich. And on payday I’d go for a pizza, and to a movie, and buy a lipstick.”

We have heard variations of this theme countless times, but not usually from someone famous for analysing the housing market. The nonsense in this thinking is obvious. House prices (and, by extension, rental costs) have increased dramatically more than wages in the past 50 years, making it nearly impossible for young people (or at least those without a large inheritance or significant financial help) to buy a home – even if they did give up every expense but their weekly food shop. So why would Allsopp enforce this older generation’s view of millennials’ economic ineptitude when her job all but guarantees she must understand these problems?

The only logical answer is boomer mathematics: it inflates and miscalculates the cost of the entertainment closely associated with young people. 

At the heart of this boomer paradigm, as well as in subsequent generations such as Allsopp’s, is the idea that stereotypically millennial things are synonymous with luxury. The implication is that even cash-strapped millennials are choosing to dive deep into their overdrafts in order to keep up glamorous appearances – that the new things older generations didn’t have, such as Netflix or a gym on every corner, must automatically be expensive. But the numbers reveal this assertion to be a complete absurdity: a Netflix subscription costs £5.99 monthly, a gym membership can be as cheap as £20 a month, and a long weekend in Lisbon could be less than £300. Not only are these things inexpensive, but they are often savvy economic decisions. A single cinema ticket – which Allsopp said she used to buy – today costs more than a month of Netflix.

This “luxury” is a misconception. Sweating in a grotty PureGym or consuming all of your entertainment through the computer hardly seem spectacular over-indulgences. Easy access to an abundance of these things becomes equated – wrongly – with overspending, superficiality and frivolity. What drives the argument is not logic but resentment that life appears more fun for young people today, which turns into derision when they dare to complain that they can’t afford the basics.

[See also: Why Kirstie Allsopp is victim-blaming young people for a broken housing market]

What makes boomer mathematics so appealing to older generations is that history tricks them into believing their calculations are justified. It isn’t that millennials have it harder when it comes to affording the core needs in life, it’s just that older generations knew how to make smarter decisions – something younger generations are refusing to do by neglecting to make simple sacrifices. Putting aside the crucial fact that even if they did, millennials would still not be able to afford to buy a house – should we not want to live in a society where someone can enjoy low-cost pleasures, such as a cheap holiday, and have it become a barrier to owning a home?

More importantly, older generations never actually made smarter decisions. There was no system that they gamed. They were in the right place at the right time, lucky enough to be born during a period of time when housing was actually affordable. Today’s young people have not been handed the same good fortune.

Cultural differences around what is or isn’t considered indulgent have fooled older generations into believing that young people are hypocrites – they moan about not being able to afford a home while spending endlessly on frivolous things that keep them from having one. Of course, this simply isn’t true: the young merely have access to more cheap forms of entertainment, while not being able to afford one of the fundamentals. Giving up these things might save them roughly a grand a year. 

What Allsopp (and others her age who hold the same misguided opinion) fail to grasp is that the conversation shouldn’t be about what small luxuries millennials should sacrifice, but how to make buying a home less impossible for future generations.

[See also: There’s an easy way to help with energy bills, but the government won’t use it]

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