When my 23-year-old stepdaughter Alex moved from Buffalo to Seattle, I had the usual mix of parental emotions: pride at her bravery; worry for her safety; nostalgia for the long-ago days when I had the freedom to pack up and leave everything behind. On a visit a few months ago—about a year after she’d moved—I expected to find Alex’s apartment decorated the way she’d tricked out her teenage bedroom, with joyful colors, funky lamps and an eclectic mix of art on the walls.
Instead, I got my first real glimpse into the Millennial mind-set. I’ll admit I was temporarily befuddled trying to grasp her generation’s raison d’etre. Alex’s entire micro-apartment was the size of an average bedroom, making me glad I hadn’t hauled along in my suitcase some artifacts of her youth, for there would have been nowhere to put them. The walls were bare save for a Balinese-looking throw hanging above the bed. It was the only real color in an all-neutrals palette. The place seemed so tiny, yet remarkably uncluttered, and that’s when I realized that she kept in her apartment only the things that she needed, and nothing more.
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There’s growing recognition that the Millennial generation’s spending habits are remaking our economic landscape into a shape we don’t yet recognize. They don’t buy houses, and many of them don’t buy cars, either. Adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 26% of all new vehicles sold in America last year, according to J.D. Powers, down from the peak of 38% in 1985 for that age group. Even the proportion of teenagers with a driver’s license fell by 28% between 1998 and 2008.
I saw this for myself. Alex had her car shipped out from Buffalo only when her work commute became problematic. For the three days we spent together, we rarely navigated by vehicle. She walks everywhere, (uphill both ways, I swear) rain or shine (mostly rain), even to buy groceries and carry them home. And because she walks everywhere, I walked everywhere too.
So if Millennials aren’t buying homes and cars, what are they spending their money on? Technology for one thing. Millennials value their smart phone’s ability to keep them connected to each other and the vast web of information that’s just a word search away. (Alex’s iPhone is her laptop, desktop, tablet, television, reading library and movie theater.) Education is another investment Millennials deem worthy. In a world where great ideas can become hugely profitable companies, a relevant education could be a far more portable and valuable asset than a house.
One afternoon while Alex was at work, I scanned her living space. Since there was no television, computer or laptop, there was no expensive cable bill; there was no dining room table; no shelves lined with books. And yet, this spare little room was surprisingly cheery and meditative. The absence of clutter invited not just a deep breath, but a re-evaluation of what I defined as a necessity. Everything in Alex’s apartment could be packed up and moved out in half a day, and that seemed to me like the ultimate freedom. I was beginning to really like this Millennial approach to living: simple, unfettered, clear-eyed.
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Alex often calls me for advice and I’m usually ready to dispense what I hope is relevant and useful knowledge gained from living five-and-a-half decades. I never expected that I’d learn something new and profound from a person half my age: the wisdom of paring down, and all the possibilities inherent in the freedom that comes with living simply. I’m hooked. And thanks to the Millennial in my life, I have already made plans to part with my fax machine.
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