If you’ve read my novels or keep up with me on Facebook, you know that I’m interested in pretty much everything, and that includes economics and finance. I get the Wall Street Journal primarily because it has extraordinary book coverage. There’s a daily column with reviews of nonfiction that I often find useful (background reading for whatever I’m working on) and half a dozen pages of book reviews on weekends.
That’s a glorious thing in a world where so many newspaper book sections have been downsized or jettisoned entirely. Publishers used to support book sections with advertising but after the 2008 crash, they pulled waaaaay back on publicity budgets. That seemed self-defeating to me at the time and still does. It’s easy to blame “competition for the entertainment dollar” for falling sales, but movie studios often spend as much on advertising as they do on the production itself.
Helpful hint to publishers: people can’t buy something if they don’t know it exists.
Anyway, this morning there was a long, bemused article in the WSJ wondering why China’s woes are affecting the U.S. stock market so much, despite the fact that only about 1% of our exports go there. And the fall in oil prices should benefit us, but consumers are not doing their part. What’s going on? Why aren’t people spending money?
Okay, Wall Street Journal, I’m going to explain it to you. It’s generational. It’s Boomers and Millennials, the two hugest generations in history.
It never ceases to amaze me that the people in charge have failed to anticipate the impact of the Baby Boomers’ natural life cycle. Our mothers were giving birth in hospital corridors because they were having so many post-war kids, the available obstetrics units couldn’t accommodate them all. Five years later, every school board in the country was shocked — shocked! — when a bazillion five-year-olds showed up for the first day of kindergarten.
Look around you. Nearly every grammar school in the country was built in 1957, but were they ready for us when we got to high school? Nope. I graduated with a class of 860; we had to be split into two shifts to fit into a building that was hopelessly under-sized for the army of teenagers that was advancing on life. We had 3600 students at Glenbard East and this was in a town of 20,000! I swear to God, the reason that chemistry completely defeated me was that I had to take the class at 7 A.M. when I was nearly comatose. All I remember is, There was this chart…
So. Why is the economic engine sputtering just now? First, let’s look at the senior Russells (m. 1970). Don (b. 1949) retired last year. Mary (b. 1950) works at home. Oil prices are mostly a spectator sport for us. Our mortgage is paid off. We saved aggressively and invested carefully for 45 years, but we are done buying stock and bonds. We have a well-balanced portfolio. We’re standing pat for now, but fair warning: we’ll start selling when we turn 70 and have to take the minimum required distributions from our IRAs.
Don’t count on us, Wall Street.
Don and I don’t need furniture. We don’t need dishes. We don’t need rugs. In the past decade, we inherited our parents’ households and ended up with at least three of everything you can imagine. Don kept some of his father’s tools (made of heavier steel than most modern cars). I’ve kept a few Pyrex storage containers and some fun old bowls that remind me of Blanche (b.1914), but as a writer and as a householder, I LOVE to edit. Don still buys computer stuff, though not much else. From now on, Boomers will be purging, not acquiring.
Don’t count on us, China.
In the meantime, the American economy has been eating its young. It’s turned education into a profit center, not a public good necessary to produce an informed citizenry. Many young parents who’d like to be saving for their kids’ education are still paying off their own student loans. They live in a gig economy and rarely know what their income will be in six months. They can’t qualify for mortgages, so they can’t build wealth the way earlier generations did. This has driven some Millennials toward the Tiny House phenomenon.
The junior Russells are Millennials. Our son (b. 1985) and daughter-in-law (b. 1987) are statistically unusual in being well-married (2008) and well-launched. (Who knew that the movie biz would be one of the few industries to get through the Great Recession without being gutted? Dumb luck.) Anyway, they live near Hollywood in a small condo and they don’t want more STUFF either.
Like millions around the world, my daughter-in-law and I are joyous declutterers who worship at the feet of Marie Kondo (although I refuse to fold underpants because, honestly, you’ve got to be kidding). Nobody in business should be unaware that Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is an international mega-blockbuster. To KonMari is now a verb. Once people have KonMari’ed all the depressing crap out of their homes, they’re loathe to full the space up again. They become much more resistant to buying new things.
If you’re selling STUFF, you’d better be thinking about that.
And it would behoove entrepreneurial Gen Xers to get out in front of the Millennial generation. The “echo boom” is, predictably, the largest in history. Study the series of rolling economic booms and busts that have been triggered by the life cycle of those born in the decade after World War II. That’s your market for the next fifty years.
There are also opportunities if you anticipate what Boomers and Millennials both want. Tiny houses appeal to downsizing Boomers as well as cash-strapped Millennials, but my daughter-in-law and I have the same fantasy. We dream of a family compound with a house for the younger Russells and their (still theoretical) children, and a small but separate place (converted garage maybe?) for the older Russells in the back of the property, with a fenced-in yard where dogs and kids can meet in the middle.
If I were in construction, I’d start looking at three-generation design options.
I think robot cars will be a good bet, too. I am now and always have been a lousy driver. Currently, Don is “driving Miss Mary,” but we are eagerly watching the development of self-driving vehicles. I think there’s going to be a huge demand for them among Boomers. Bonus: Millennials won’t have to argue with Dad about giving up the keys or worry about Mom crashing into a store front.
Although there could be a lot of unintended consequences when the unattended elderly start telling their cars where to take them. “Honey? Your mom is in Chicago again…”