At last count, I’ve lived in 22 different places: thirteen houses, six apartments, and two college dormitories, in nine different states and two foreign countries. Of those, I can’t say that I really called more than a third of them “home.” When I lived under my parents’ roof, whether we were renting an apartment for a matter of months, or living in a house for years at a time, it was a given that I lived in one. Ever since, for the last seven years, I’ve never really been able to use that word. After work, I go “back to my apartment,” and after vacations, I go “back to South Bend”; when someone asks me where home is, I dodge the question by telling them where I live. If people notice the subtle distinction I’m making, at least they don’t comment on it.
The idea of home is enshrined in our cultural consciousness, not to mention legal tradition: It’s a promise of stability, security, and safety from the outside world. It’s exactly the opposite of the bewildering world of Craigslist ads and sublets that faces a new adult, forced to fend for him- or herself after college. Each piece of paperwork, from insurance forms to utilities contracts, is a reminder that you are simply an end-user, whether of space or power or the maintenance crew. Security bars on first-floor windows and multiple levels of locks are a reminder just how far removed you are from the relatively carefree world of American suburbia for those who, like me, grew up there. The paper-thin walls that separate you from your neighbors (but not the noise that they make) are constant reminders that you’re stacked, Tetris-like, on top of dozens if not hundreds of others.
Gradually, you start to feel like the place you go back to after work is not a refuge from the daily grind at all, but simply a place to perform a different set of repetitive tasks — cooking, cleaning, watching TV — than the ones you perform from 9 to 5. It’s amazing how much something, or rather someplace, to which we didn’t give so much as a second thought for our entire childhoods becomes a source of constant, low-level anxiety and irritation once the lease and utility bills are actually in your own name.
It might seem like this is just another case of Gen-Y militant self-absorption or nostalgia. After all, twentysomethings aren’t the only ones who have forgotten what home means during adolescence and early adulthood and who then spend the rest of their adult lives trying to piece it together again. For all of the public hand-wringing about the decline of the traditional family or the erosion of local pride, nobody is suggesting that Americans are radically rethinking their idea of home.
And yet the issue has been at the front and center lately. The arrest of Skip Gates made commentators trip all over themselves to finesse the twin issues of race and obeying authority for partisan points. It wasn’t until later that people started pointing out, in the words of British expat Christopher Hitchens, “a man’s home is his Constitutional castle.” And, as the news reminds us daily, we’re living in the middle of an economic nightmare thanks to George W. Bush’s promotion of the “ownership society,” which was based around cheap cars and big suburban houses.
In fact, the effects of the Great Recession on home ownership might go well beyond the mortgage-derivatives market. In March of 2009, Richard Florida’s article in The Atlantic Monthly, called “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” argued that the the American economy has irrevocably shifted away from manufacturing and toward “idea-driven creative industries.” It’s a familiar narrative, one in which places that produce goods — the Rust Belt, the Sun Belt, and much of the Great Plains — will continue to contract, while places that have high concentrations of “creative” workers and businesses — New York, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley — will grow.
More importantly, Florida says, the new economy “will require a new kind of geography as well, a new spatial fix for the next chapter of American economic history.” Suburbia was “the geographic expression of mass production and the early credit economy,” but now, with easy credit gone and industrial pollution no longer a compelling reason to escape the cities, it no longer makes sense — and may not even be possible — for nearly 70% of Americans to own a house. Low-density suburban sprawl and the new creative economy, according to Florida, are fundamentally incompatible.
Furthermore, Florida argues, home ownership is bad for the economy. People who own a house are more likely to be unemployed but no more likely to be happier or have better self esteem. Tax incentives and artificially low mortgage rates encourage people to buy more house than they need and spend the money they would otherwise use on other sectors of the economy. At the same time, just when industries that reward flexibility and mobility are beginning to drive the economy, homeowners find themselves increasingly unable to sell their home, unable to move, and at a significant disadvantage in the new creative economy.
The solution? Encourage renting and urban development. Stop propping up regions and industries that cater to the industrial economy. Expect people to pull up stakes and move far more frequently than they have since World War II. And say goodbye to home ownership, white picket fence and all, as a cornerstone of the American dream.
If Florida is right, then it seems like Gen Y is going to be the first in 80 years where less than half of us will own houses. It will be just another way in which economic reality is going to force us to rethink our ideas of success and stop comparing ourselves to our parents. The American home as we knew it is turning out to be an illusion, a kind of Santa Claus myth writ large, and in its place will be something a lot more like the annual game of musical chairs that dormitory-bound college students and army brats go through. Instead, we may have to think of home less in terms of a McMansion, and more in terms of the contents of a U-Haul.
As a wise Klingon once put it, “if there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.” It’s a maxim that’s just as true for the twenty-first century economy — and the twenty-first century idea of what makes a home.