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Private property ownership is something most Americans today take for granted, especially rights related to owning land and homes. Throughout much of the history of Western Civilization, monarchs, lords, and emperors were ultimately the true “owners” of land. An individual may have a home or a little plot of land, but that land ultimately belonged to a higher power when push came to shove—and “shove” happened far too often. This sort of tyrannical power is still a reality for billions of people throughout the world. A land owner in China, for instance, may own the land technically, but in reality the government has the power to essentially ignore so-called “property rights” whenever it wants. And all this is done in the name of the “collective.”
In America, a person’s home is his or her “castle,” and the government exists to protect the property rights of others (in theory). The “American dream” of owning a home has long reflected an important characteristic of the people of the United States: the hope that one day each of us will be our own little kings and queens of our own little castles. Owning land is, in many ways, the purest form of liberty.
But for many millennials today, the dream has changed. Millennials are no longer looking at home ownership as the new American dream, and this generation’s changing desires are affecting how younger people live, work, and consume in the free market.
One of the most obvious changes is millennials are far more interested in renting apartments and living in urban areas compared to previous generations. They rent property for practical reasons. The difficulty millennials have experienced recently in the U.S. job market is compounded by crippling student debt and a housing market that still caters to families with children (even though many millennials are waiting until their mid-30s before considering the possibility of having children).
Because of the high costs associated with mortgages and lack of funds for a down payment, many millennials opt to rent homes. Renting a home is often less expensive than a mortgage, largely because of the high maintenance costs associated with home ownership, and many students would much rather pay off student loan debt than pay for a mortgage. The student debt crisis has become such an important part of the millennial experience, paying off student loans has now become the new American dream.
Rather than think about making mortgage payments, replacing a broken down appliance, or saving up for a child’s college education, millennials put the large amount of money saved from renting into immersive experiences, such as traveling and intellectual enrichment. Millennials see more of the world than any other generation in American history, and these experiences do help to shape the way they view their daily lives.
Because millennials are not tied down to one location and because they have had the opportunity to travel more than others in the past, the millennial workforce thinks about their careers in a historically unique way. “The average worker today stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.4 years, according to the most recent available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the expected tenure of the workforce’s youngest employees is about half that,” reports Jeanne Meister for Forbes.
The traditional portrayal of the American dream as a suburban paradise complete with white picket fences and sprawling houses has become defunct for millennials. For better or worse, the home ownership element so frequently prized in the past has ceased to be a factor. Millennials’ version of the American dream has evolved from that of past generations. While previous generations emphasized financial stability, millennials value a certain romantic sense of restlessness that takes them across the country, from one job to the next.
While older Americans may find all of this unnerving, younger people have accepted that they simply won’t have the same kind of lifestyle previous generations did, and they are largely ok with it. However, questions still remain about how these issues will affect the U.S. economy, future elections, and other issues.
Most millennials still yearn to be financially stable enough to live freely, to be politically involved in the free election of their representatives, and to be able to express themselves freely in society. But, the way those who support liberty communicate the importance of freedom must be altered to fit with the millennial experience. Owning property is no longer the sign of independence it once was, and millennials are more interested in the rights of people living on other continents and on attaining a higher education than other generations have been.
Liberty is still vital to the American dream, but in an entirely unique way. That’s not to say conservatives have nothing to offer millennials; they have much to offer in fact. Millennials are very concerned about privacy rights, personal liberties, artistic freedom, and protecting small businesses. The message of freedom needs to emphasize these points, and if it does, millennials will relate to the true cause of real conservatism (liberty), which could make the next 50 years a truly magnificent time in U.S. history—but only if the message changes.
Danni Ondraskova is a sophomore at Wellesley College who is double majoring in Russian area studies and economics. She is the news editor of The Wellesley News. Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is editor of Consumer Power Report for The Heartland Institute.