The Post-Ownership Society

How the “sharing economy” allows Millennials to cope with downward mobility, and also makes them poorer.

Five and a half years ago, when I first moved to Washington, D.C., for a magazine job, I rented a basement apartment in a neighborhood called Bloomingdale. The area was full of Victorian-era homes that had once been occupied by mostly middle-class black families, right on the border where the Northwest quadrant of the city becomes the Northeast. But throughout the 2000s, affordable D.C. neighborhoods with trendy-sounding names like Bloomingdale drew gentrifiers who needed low rents—journalists, creative types, entry-level do-gooders, and shift-working bartenders and baristas who occasionally had Mom and Dad’s help—and so the neighborhoods changed.

Some days, I worked from home instead of going into the office, and I’d head down the block to the Big Bear Café, a hipster outpost where you could find everyone from the neighborhood, the old and the new, together in one place. There, we’d all spend more than $2 on a cup of over-roasted French press coffee or $5 on a breakfast bagel with ham, egg, and cheese sourced straight from farms within a 500-mile radius of the city. I was as likely to see a Generation X professional working on his or her new laptop as I was to overhear lithe young men and women in a conversation about reinventing yoga. Sitting among this particular slice of the tattooed elite—the people who are outside the center of power but at a good distance for judging it—typing away on my own computer, I could feel like I’d made it. Somewhere, anyway.

Last summer, I was laid off when my magazine dramatically and suddenly shrank to half its size. It was the first time I’d been unemployed in my adult life, though I’d watched waves of layoffs hit coworkers in nearly every job I’d had. I had an army of friends, many slightly younger Millennials who’d graduated in the height of the Great Recession, who showed me the unemployment ropes. Deciding to save money on rent, which had grown in five years from $995 a month to $1,275, I sublet my apartment. I stayed for a few weeks off U Street at a friend’s group house. There was an unoccupied spare bedroom that had been used as a crash pad for unemployed friends many times before, and they hosted a huge dinner party nearly every Sunday at which I had already been a regular, so it felt like home.

Through the summer, my friends and I, all in our late twenties to mid-thirties, would go out at night for $10 Negronis or bourbons, or went to places where we had cultivated friendships with bartenders so we got some drinks for free. We’d have $8 drip coffee in the mornings with a rosemary or lavender scone, or something else ridiculously fancy, rubbing shoulders with the people our age and older who actually made money. Some of us would go off to work while the rest of us navigated our new self-employment, since the freelance life was the only one available.

I saved up enough money over the summer to afford my rent again, for awhile, and I moved back into my apartment and continued piecing together work as a freelancer. I felt like I hadn’t missed a beat. Most important, I was doing the work I wanted to do, as were my friends—we were doing good work, in the fields we’d intended to enter. We were making a difference, not just clocking in somewhere during the day and having extended-adolescence fun at night. We felt we were building toward something, an actual career and a life.

Millennials are loosely defined as the generation that came of age in the decades around the turn of the century. Demographers put the earliest birth years at either 1980 or 1982, with an end point of 2000 or 2002, which means that Millennials’ working lives will always be shaped by the Great Recession and its aftermath. Even for the oldest among us, the time before video games and computers is lost in the hazy memories of early childhood. We’re a generation in which children were empowered by promises that they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be. Born in October 1979, I’m technically part of Generation X, but socially I fit best with the Millennials. I graduated from high school with 1980s babies, and the phone number on my first resume in college was a cell phone rather than a landline. My friends, classmates, colleagues, and I are all used to mobility, Google searches, and texting. The cynicism and slactivism that characterized, or stereotyped, Gen X is something we’ve observed only when we watch clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on YouTube or Hulu, or shared on Facebook.

The oldest of us are now reaching our mid-thirties. A couple of years ago, it seemed as if I woke up one day and suddenly felt like an adult. Nothing had changed materially about my life, but my experiences and responsibilities totaled up in a way that equaled grownup. And yet, I still lived in a tiny apartment with an Ikea dining table, a bookshelf I scored from my curb, and a couch I carted home when it was discarded from my office. I never expected to be rich, but I did expect to someday have real furniture and maybe even a house. Achieving those things was always in the future, at some relatively well-moneyed point that I was expecting would roll around— until I realized the future had dawned and the financial stability hadn’t appeared.

My friends and I are a recognizable class in D.C. and other cities like it (New York, Los Angeles, Boston), the creatives, the professors, the people who work in nonprofits or think tanks because they want to use their talents to make the world a better place. In decades past, people like us never made much money, and money is not the main way our tribe keeps score. But I see lots of people in the same fields who are twenty-five, thirty, or forty years older than I am who have solid, comfortable lives that have added up materially. They’re editors of magazines, tenured professors, and people who are stably employed at nonprofits with actual salaries, health care benefits, and, if not traditional pensions, then at least matching employer contributions to their 401(k)s. They’re not living in mansions, or even McMansions, but they have tasteful homes they bought on Capitol Hill or in close-in suburbs like Silver Spring or Takoma Park decades ago that now give them an easy half a million in net worth. Along the way they’ve managed to afford having one or two kids, and have sent those kids to college, even if they had to take on debt to pull it off. Many seem satisfied and fulfilled as they approach a modest but comfortable retirement.

I’m happy for them. But their lives seem incredibly distant to me, as if their histories belong in a textbook of some past America. I don’t see the path that would get me from where I am to where they are. And I’m sure many of my friends, though we might be counted among the more privileged members of our generation, feel the same.

Maybe the twenty- and thirtysomethings of previous generations also felt this way when they looked up the age ladder. And Millennials do have some real potential advantages over previous generations, from our higher levels of education to all the possible benefits of digital technologies. But before we get too excited about all the low-cost goods and services our generation can summon with an app, we need to understand that even these features of the “sharing economy” are making some people above us very rich while we become a generation that owns virtually nothing.

A few months after my move to D.C., I got rid of my aging car. I had been waiting for the day it would fail inspection, and it sat mostly unused in a $100-a-month lot. I signed up for Zipcar instead. I got a bargain on my start-up fee through the online coupon service Groupon, and soon Zipcar had a new VW Golf parked less than three blocks from my basement apartment.

Access to a car was useful, because when I first moved to my neighborhood, it was a food desert. I’d occasionally rent a car for a big grocery trip or a trip to Target for household goods—otherwise I’d have to scrounge for food at the price-gouging corner store up the street or lug groceries for a mile. Zipcar was the best option, because for many years it was difficult to get a taxi service to come to my house, even when I called the dispatcher a day in advance to schedule it, and it was impossible to hail a cab on North Capitol and Florida, the biggest intersection near where I lived.

Over the years, getting around has become even easier. The car service smartphone apps Uber and Lyft have finally allowed me to get a ride from my house and friends’ houses in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights or Petworth—they’re sometimes cheaper than traditional cabs, and they’re always more reliable. Using Capital Bikeshare means we didn’t even have to own our own bikes.

 

Other products and services have made my life easier still. At a slight premium, I can have food delivered straight to my door rather than worrying about cab trips back and forth from the supermarket. Amazon Prime’s free two-day delivery obviates long trips to Target or spending a fortune at a hardware store for household goods. If we have to pick up extra hours of work to cover the cost of rent or lattes and drinks, we can have our washing done by the online service Washio, or send someone else to the grocery store for us with Instacart. These companies mostly make money by charging fees per transaction or fixed membership fees. Saving time is important, too—there is always more work to do.

Jun-15-Potts-millennials2These are the benefits of the sharing economy. They help us manage, and sometimes afford, our lives. We can live in relatively cheaper neighborhoods, far from the city center and reliable public transportation, because we can always pull up an app. Everyone uses Uber and Lyft and Zipcar: the waitress at the brick-oven pizza place that opened in Bloomingdale four years ago, especially when she needs to get home after a late shift; the kid who quit his job at the coffee shop to be a theater set designer; the vintage-clothing store owner who also makes money as a freelance journalist. Facets of the sharing economy provide opportunities for coping with downward mobility, even if some older folks may not understand how using a $600 smartphone to summon a college-educated Uber chauffeur amounts to thrift.

For one friend of a friend of mine, Nathalie Maréchal, the sharing economy makes graduate school possible. Nathalie, who is now twenty-nine, got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in D.C. before moving to Los Angeles for a PhD program in communications at the University of Southern California. Her stipend is $30,000 a year, which she has to stretch to cover her car—an unavoidable purchase in L.A.—and her $1,400 one-bedroom apartment. To make it work, during breaks she rents the apartment on Airbnb, the online service meant to provide an alternative to traditional hotels. Regular people can rent out their rooms for extra money, and any damages are covered by the insurance Airbnb provides. In the meantime, Nathalie flies back to D.C. to stay with her partner. It helps that he is stably employed here in broadcasting, and her parents can give her money every now and then. Getting regular financial help from parents is something about 35 percent of Millennials say they are doing.

Nathalie is worried, because Los Angeles is one of the many cities cracking down on Airbnb and demanding that its users pay a hotel tax. While Airbnb markets itself as an online service that helps people like Nathalie, and the brand requires people to believe that users are just exchanging money for services with their “peers,” a 2014 study showed that roughly three-quarters of Airbnb hosts in New York City owned multiple properties—that is, they are basically acting as hoteliers without taking on the responsibilities that owning and running a hotel requires. “That’s very different from someone like me who’s just trying to sublet her apartment over the summer in a safe way that has insurance,” Nathalie says. For her, Airbnb isn’t just extra income—“it’s a necessity.” (For those who are trying to cobble together a living by renting out multiple Airbnbs, it may be an economic necessity as well, but it’s one that undermines hotel safety standards and threatens the livelihood of hotel service workers.)

The loss of Airbnb income could disrupt the delicately balanced graduate school life Nathalie has built for herself. In fact, it could disrupt her whole life going forward. She’s preparing for a career as a likely underpaid academic. “The only way I’ll own a house is if my partner buys one,” she told me.

Another woman, a thirty-two-year-old named Melissa Esposito, found a second career through the online sharing economy. Esposito majored in English at Salem College in North Carolina and had come to D.C. to work for a campaign with Emily’s List during the 2004 elections. Afterward, she’d stayed in the city to work for Flex-
car, an early competitor to Zipcar. “They were environmentally conscious, and I liked that idea,” she says. “I got rid of my car.” Then, Zipcar bought Flexcar in 2007 and consolidated operations. Within two years, Melissa was out of work.

She looked for other jobs, but 2009 was a bleak employment year. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.1 million workers lost their jobs in 2009, primarily in mass layoff events.) Since high school, Melissa had been making her own stationery and giving it away to friends as gifts. At first she designed it by hand, and later moved to making stationery digitally and printing it on eco-friendly paper. Before she lost her job, she was already selling stationery on Etsy, a website on which users can sell handmade goods. (Etsy charges fees—20 cents per item listed for four months, then 3.5 percent of the item price once sold—in exchange for letting users sell on the platform.)

Now, with more time on her hands and few job prospects, Melissa decided to concentrate on growing her handicraft hobby into a career. Making stationery for a living was something her mother viewed with skepticism, but Esposito saw a potential business in artisan notecards, stationery, and other gifts. After all, even with the ubiquity of electronic communication, stationery stores can still be found in malls. Why not build a store online? The start-up costs were much lower than opening a bricks-and-mortar store, and Etsy took care of all the billing and made the technical aspects of operating a virtual store easy. She also liked the idea of a flexible career, especially as she looked forward to one day having children.

But, as with most people selling on Etsy, Melissa’s virtual store does not add up to a living. Rather, it is a way to mitigate the lack of a more secure career path.

Samantha Close, another doctoral student at the University of Southern California, made a documentary about Etsy sellers. Most of the people she spoke with had bachelor’s degrees but were struggling to find a career with a path for advancement. She mentioned one woman who’d worked as a receptionist: “She said she had to ask permission to go to the restroom. ‘I’m an adult woman, I’m thirty years old, I don’t want to ask permission to go to the bathroom.’ ” For others, especially ethnic minorities, even well-educated ones, employment options outside Etsy were often limited to low-wage jobs in retail or fast food. “It doesn’t make any sense to put health, to put effort, to put time into a minimum-wage job where your hours can be cut at any point and there’s no benefit for you,” Close said.

 

According to a report released by Etsy, only 18 percent of sellers use their Etsy store as their primary source of income; the rest simply need or want the extra money. More telling, Etsy described its sellers as emblematic of what it euphemistically called a shift toward “flexible work”—that is, its sellers don’t have stable jobs. “[Forty-eight] percent are independent, part time, or temporary workers with a median household income of $44,900, 10.2 percent lower than the national average. Etsy sellers are combining income from both salaried jobs and entrepreneurial efforts to make a living,” the report read. But the company’s owners just had a big payday. Etsy started selling stock to the public in April, raising $1.8 billion in its initial public offering. Word on Wall Street is that it may soon be gobbled up by an even larger corporation, such as eBay.

Jun-15-Potts-Millennials3This spring, less than a year into my life as a freelance writer, I realized I couldn’t live in my apartment anymore. My rent had been increasing faster than my income, and even if I didn’t mind that the cost was eating into a growing share of my take-home budget, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Other costs were growing, too, especially the student loans from my undergraduate years and an ill-advised master’s degree. I had deferred my student loans as long as possible and couldn’t put off payments any longer. My student debt totals more than $100,000, which is way more than I make in a year, and on an income-based repayment plan, my monthly bill is more than $500, or about half my rent. If I didn’t have an income-based plan, I’d be paying over $1,000 a month.

Most of my friends have student loans, and of the dozen or so Millennials I spoke to for this article, only two didn’t have student loans. Because we have degrees, we are better off than those who have student loans but did not graduate. Over time, we are told, those of us who graduated will see increased earnings that will outweigh the costs of our education. (And it’s the best-educated generation in American history, with a third of twenty-six- to thirty-three-year-olds possessing a col-
lege degree.)

That all seems so abstract to me, though. There has never been a generation with this much student debt. Two-thirds of us who graduate do so with loans, and the average amount is $28,000. The growth is partly because the cost of college increased more than 500 percent in one generation. The student loan problem gets worse for those who go on to graduate school, which many people did during the downturn. The unemployment rate for Millennials with at least a college degree is 3.8 percent—better than the 12.2 percent for those without, but still double the rate for older college graduates, and higher than the unemployment rates for college graduates of the same age after the 1982 and 1992 recessions.

In all, young people bore the brunt of the economic downturn—as young workers often do—but Millennials are taking a longer time to recover than previous generations did after similar events. More people are retiring later than expected, staying in the workforce longer because of the recession, and employers are more reluctant to hire workers with a shorter employment history and fewer skills. When they do hire them, it’s at a lower starting salary than those paid in previous generations. Some people—young people without families to pay for—have part-time second jobs just to supplement their flagging salaries. A friend of mine who works in the nonprofit sector, and my boyfriend, who is a social worker, both work two jobs to cover bills and have a little money beyond the base level they need.

Many Millennials—including me—are no longer working full-time jobs but are instead making do with the gig economy, part of the contingent job market that is comprising a bigger and bigger share of the labor force. By some estimates, contract employment made up fully half of the jobs added after the recession, and contract workers are currently 40 percent of the labor force.

 

In truth, being a freelance writer suits my lifestyle and career goals, and I might have chosen it for myself whatever the job market looked like. Writing has also never been the world’s quickest path to getting rich, and I wouldn’t be doing it if money were my goal. Some of my friends in other industries, from the law to many types of nonprofit work, feel the same way.

But the downside is that we don’t have benefits, like health insurance or employer matches for 401(k)s, and our jobs are unstable. Employers can end relationships with us at any time, and much of the work is project based. Contacts and clients can dry up, and it’s harder to forge new ones without an office to go to. Skills can atrophy. These workplace setbacks can impact the rest of our lives.

Even people with apparently stable jobs find themselves needing to moonlight in the gig economy. Rebecca Delaney, a twenty-seven-year-old who once interned for my old magazine, is now a “full-time” federal employee. But after she was furloughed in 2013 during one of the government shutdowns, she started an Etsy store selling clothes and jewelry. “Courtesy of Ted Cruz, I got a new hobby that pays money,” she says. Many people turn their hobbies into moneymaking ventures not just for fun, but as a hedge against losing their day job.

Uber drivers, too, are part of the same gig economy. Uber recently released a survey finding that their drivers make an average of $19 an hour—but, crucially, the company did not take into account the costs that Uber drivers face, such as the cost of owning and maintaining a late-model car, as well as paying for gas, insurance, fees, and depreciation. And because Uber insists that they are not employees but, rather, independent contractors, Uber drivers are also responsible for the cost of buying their own health insurance. While the company’s survey found that more than three-quarters of the drivers were satisfied working with Uber, almost a third said they were looking for a better, full-time job. Forty percent said driving for Uber did not make up a significant portion of their wages.

Marriage—and the two incomes it provides—could stabilize life for many Millennials, but the irony is that most young people say they want to wait to get their finances in order before they get married. The average age of marriage has been inching up, and is now twenty-seven for women and twenty-nine for men. A relatively new phenomenon is that a young woman and her potential partner are likely to be very focused on how well she is doing financially before committing to marriage. “I think lots of people want to be established and know who they are before they get married and share finances,” says thirty-four-year-old Kate Amarelo, who works for the federal government and also sells jewelry on Etsy. “At least for women, they want to be more self-sufficient and self-reliant.…The crowd I hang with is more the ones who want to be independent and do their own thing before latching onto the whole getting married, have a kid, buy a house thing.”

Many women I know agree with her: we fear being overly dependent on a husband’s money. We learned, perhaps too well, the lessons of previous generations of women, some of whom, struggling to balance home and work, scaled back jobs and relied on their husband’s earnings only to be left financially devastated by divorce. In addition, many of the young men in this generation barely earn enough to support themselves, let alone a wife and children. The most educated Millennials are most likely to be married. But while marriage may often in effect be a reward for having “made it” financially, having a financial partner can also bring financial stability. Melissa Esposito, who is among the 26 percent of Millennials who are married, wouldn’t have been able to become a shop owner had she not had a stably employed husband.

Without a marriage and children, there’s less pressure to settle down and buy a home, and Millennials are delaying that, too. Even the oldest Millennials aren’t buying homes at the ages previous generations did. They’re the biggest driver of the decline in homeownership, and the wealth of households headed by someone under the age of thirty-five is down 41 percent from where it was for the same type of households in 1995.

 

Jun-15-Potts-Millennials4“Most of us came of age when all we were hearing about was that the economy sucked because people bought houses,” Rebecca Delaney says. “The message people my age took away was ‘Homeownership is frightening and the economy’s going to eat you.’ ” There are also those who just enjoy renting. “I don’t want to buy a house at all, particularly,” says Kate Amarelo. “If I had to deal with all the things that go on in a house, oh no, uh-uh.… The whole financial thing is terrifying.” But homes have been the biggest source of wealth for middle-class families, and if Millennials don’t become homeowners, they are going to need some other way of building assets for the future.

I watched my parents struggle with a home they could barely afford, and I came away with the message that they were worse off for having become homeowners, not better. But as we get older, we realize that adult life is slipping out of reach, whether we want that kind of life or not. (I felt that way especially as, at thirty-five, I confronted the rental market for what felt like the millionth time in my life.) We know we’re relatively well off, but we’re still worse off than the college-educated people who came before us. We’re in the careers we always knew wouldn’t make us rich, but we thought we could at least achieve solvency. After years of trying to live a bohemian life, I’ve found that even that seems harder now—especially in the cities that have always drawn those of us with modestly paying careers. While the sharing economy made it seem like I was being thrifty and saving money, the reality was that I spent almost all of my monthly income on rent, student loans, and health insurance. The people who are doing all right, or better than all right, are fewer and fewer, and the rest of us are falling farther behind.

The way in which we live our lives, in which we spend our money, may be masking this. It may be why Millennials tend to have such a sunny outlook—polls show that 49 percent think the country’s best years are ahead. As consumers and producers, we’ve been using the sharing economy instead of buying our own homes and building our net wealth. Some of us run Etsy shops, and a lot of us are “entrepreneurial” as we swing from one grapevine to the next as freelancers, but very few of us are building equity in a real business. And we’ve been deluding ourselves about who really benefits from the system.

When we rent a Zipcar for a few hours, Zipcar asks us to clean up after ourselves and fill the gas tank out of a sense of obligation to our Zipcar community. When we hire an Uber or a Lyft or rent a room on Airbnb, the person on the other end has a Facebook-style profile picture, and we chat like old friends on a big social network that purports to have taken the place of an economy. In reality, though, these are the same types of services that have always been around—private drivers and taxis, hotels, rental car companies—but their services are sliced up into tiny bits and provided by underpaid contingent workers, which is what we are ourselves. No one notices the money changing hands, and it may seem like we’re just sharing a service with friends. But in fact we’re enriching the owners of whatever app or platform we’re using, becoming just a data point on the path to their payday while we age without assets. It’s their world, and we’re just renting it.

Monica Potts

Monica Potts is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a fellow with New America.