Gen Zers have barely joined the workforce, and a quarter of them are already plotting to get out as soon as possible

early retirement gen z
Much of Gen Z already wants to retire.

  • A quarter of Gen Zers plan to retire by age 55, per a new Goldman Sachs survey.
  • They’d be joining the FIRE movement, short for financial independence/retire early.
  • It’s more evidence of Gen Z reshaping work, as they’ve driven major trends including antiwork and “The Great Reshuffle.”

Barely in the workforce, a lot of Gen Z is already planning to ditch the rat race.

A quarter of the generation said they intend to retire before the age of 55 in a new survey by Goldman Sachs Asset Management. They’ve got their sights set on FIRE, which is short for financial independence/retire early.

This community of early retirees has picked up steam since the concept was first popularized by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez in their 20-year-old book “Your Money or Your Life.” Millennials (and some Gen Xers) increasingly became interested in the movement in the 2010s, with some becoming so frugal that they lived off rice and beans to sock away enough cash to retire within three years.

It only makes sense that the next generation would continue the trend, especially in a pandemic world where remote work opened up a new door to flexibility and freedom for workers. Once some got a taste of it, they wanted to take a full bite, and Gen Z is leading the way. 

The pandemic turned the youngest generation’s lives upside down during an impressionable time, Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president at Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of “You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams,” previously told Insider. Remote work gave them the upper hand in amplifying demands for workplace autonomy, she added.

“They had so much taken away from them in terms of access, you can go on and on with what has been lost,” Rikleen said. “That reframes your thinking … you start to think about what’s important to you and how to express [that].”

They began by confidently and assertively demanding a better work-life balance, questioning pre-pandemic workplace norms like eight-hour shifts or lack of progressive values. This all comes at the chagrin of the millennial managers, wrote The New York Times’ Emma Goldberg, whose careers have always seen overworked and structured days. 

It’s part of what Erika Rodriguez called a “slow-up” in a recent opinion piece for the Guardian, as she advocated for an intentional slowdown in productivity with the aim of greater separation from work such as taking unofficial breaks or responding to emails only on select weekdays.

If that doesn’t fly in a workplace, Gen Z has so far had no qualms about quitting their crappy jobs in favor of a better one, heading the charge in what LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky has called a “Great Reshuffle.” Others still are quitting their jobs in favor of no job at all.

As Insider’s Juliana Kaplan reported, the generation is bolstering an “antiwork” movement in which people are embracing a work-free lifestyle. It’s similar to youth-led movements against work in other countries like China, where youn people are “lying flat,” prioritizing relaxation over workplace productivity and competition. 

The Gen Zers planning to retire early may not be planning to quit immediately. But by already planning to join the FIRE movement, they might make what’s currently alternative lifestyle community part of the new norm in the world of work — or lack thereof.

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Millennials are so ‘stuck-in-place’ that American migration has hit a record low

millennials migration moving
Millennials are facing “stuck-in-place” issues that prevent them from moving.

  • Migration rates hit a record low during the pandemic, per Brookings, largely because of millennials.
  • They’re “stuck in place,” largely because of underemployment and expensive housing.
  • It’s part of the new normal millennials have created, in which milestones happen later or not at all.

The story of the mass migration brought on by the pandemic has proved to be more myth than reality.

It actually did the reverse, freezing more Americans in place than any time since at least World War II.

A new Brookings analysis of Census Bureau data released last month revealed that migration rates hit a record low during the pandemic. Between March 2020 and March 2021, 8.4% of Americans moved, the smallest share since the census started collecting the information in 1947.

This doesn’t contradict other data over the past year on permanent or temporary moves, Brookings demographer William H. Frey wrote; instead it indicates that mobility dropped broadly among Americans. One can look no further than millennials to see why. 

The generation has faced two recessions before the age of 40, all while juggling soaring living costs and the burden of student-loan debt. This affordability crisis has limited their mobility, Frey said.

As he explains, the period between ages 25 to 34 is a “launching age for household formation, marriage, and careers.” But millennials have been shouldering the fallout of the Great Recession, having graduated into a broken job market and an equally broken housing market. Frey described these as “‘stuck-in-place’ issues” that prompted millennials to postpone life milestones, with migration rates also stagnating.

In 2019, local migration for 25- to 34-year-olds fell to 10% from its pre-2010 rate of 14% to 15%. In 2020, it dropped further, to 9.4%. It’s a similar story for long-distance migration, which fell from its typical rate of 8% or higher to between 6% and 7% after 2006. Today, it stands at 5.8%.

It makes sense, considering how unaffordable housing has become. Home prices have been going up for years, at a steeper rate than they did ahead of the Great Recession. By 2018, first-time buyers were paying 39% more than first-time buyers did at the same age nearly 40 years ago. The pandemic housing crisis only exacerbated the situation, with the national median home sale continuously climbing upward before reaching a record high of $386,888 in June.

Being boxed out of homeownership leaves many millennials as renters, but Census data reveals annual migration rates for renters plummeted, getting cut in half from 30.2% in 2006 to 16.6% in 2020 and 2021. That’s indicative of just how expensive the rental market has become, per Brookings.

The lack of mobility is a side effect of the new normal that millennials have created, in which big life events like homeownership and having kids can and do still happen for them, just later than they did for previous generations. Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the period between adolescence and adulthood, previously told Insider that millennials’ financial circumstances have created a new sequence for major life milestones.

“They’re not behind,” he said of millennials. “This is the new normal, and we can’t measure them according to the yardstick of the 1960s.” 

He’s been studying emerging adults since the early 1990s, when they were already being referred to as “behind,” he said, because they had begun staying in educational institutions longer and getting their first jobs later. “The norms that have changed are changing still,” he said. “Now, what’s normal is for people to stay in education or training until at least their early 20s and not in a marriage or parenthood until around age 30.”

This change in societal expectations means that lower mobility rates could be the new norm. But Frey says migration patterns, largely dependent on both millennials and Gen Z, could go either way: We could see “catch-up moves” in the future, or hybrid work may reduce the need to relocate. It all depends on the possibilities presented to these generations, and how much they remain stuck in place.

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Wall Street hopes young people will drive a metaverse boom — but only 38% of Gen Zs think it’s the next big thing

Facebook metaverse entertainment meta
Facebook, now called Meta, has created a number of images to show how the metaverse might look in the future.

  • Just 38% of Gen Zs think the metaverse is the next big thing and will become part of everyday life, new polling shows
  • That’s despite bets by investors and major companies that young people will power a metaverse boom.
  • Harris Poll found that seven out of 10 Gen Zs and millennials were interested in interacting with the metaverse.

Investors and big companies are betting that young people will flock to the metaverse and be the key driver of a virtual future.

But new research by Harris Poll suggests Generation Z needs more convincing that the metaverse is the shape of things to come.

The “metaverse” is a loose term that refers to virtual worlds where people have avatars that interact to play games, work, build things and watch performances.

Just 38% of Gen Zs — those born between 1997 and 2012— think “the metaverse is the next big thing and will become part of our lives in the next decade,” its survey found. In more-encouraging news for believers in virtual worlds, the level of agreement was 48% among millennials, defined as aged between 25 and 40.

Overall, Harris found that seven in 10 Gen Zs and millennials are interested in interacting with the metaverse.

Huge amounts of hype have been building around the metaverse lately, after Facebook rebranded as Meta and announced a switch of focus to virtual worlds. Nike and Adidas are among the corporate giants preparing projects.

Wall Street analysts are growing increasingly bullish on the metaverse, arguing that young people are already used to gaming and spending lots of time online and so will naturally take to virtual realities.

“Gen Z is going to be the population that will drive the significant early adoption of the metaverse,” Jefferies analysts, led by Simon Powell, said in a note Monday.

“This will initially take the format of crypto backed gaming and play to earn, but will expand into almost all other forms of human activity.”

Crypto enthusiasts are wildly excited about a potential boom in the use of cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens in metaverses. A company recently snapped up a plot of land in The Sandbox, a decentralized virtual world, for $4.3 million.

Harris’ polling found 37% of Gen Zs believe the chance to own unique digital items in the metaverse is worth spending their money on, compared with 33% of Americans overall. Again, millennials were more engaged, at 51%.

Harris said two-thirds of Gen Zs and millennials understood what interacting in the metaverse actually means. But that compared with just 27% of over-40s.

The confusion speaks to the fact that it’s far from clear what the metaverse will actually look like.

There are already numerous small metaverses, such as games that use virtual worlds. But one big joined-up metaverse “remains a distant and enormous challenge,” according to a recent note by Morgan Stanley analyst Edward Stanley.

Read more: More than $100 million of metaverse land was sold in the last week alone. The co-founder of a virtual real estate company breaks down why the opportunity in digital properties could rise ​200x in 16 months.

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Gen Z is reviving some of NYC’s most iconic cocktail bars in their latest wave of pandemic nostalgia

Gen Z nightlife
Gen Z New Yorkers are switching up their nightlife scene.

  • Gen Z is frequenting the bars of midcentury Manhattan, reported The New York Times.
  • Yearning for these iconic city staples is the latest in their pandemic-fueled nostalgia.
  • It’s also the latest way they’re helping bring NYC’s economy and energy back to life. 

What do Bemelmans, the Rainbow Room, and the Old Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel have in common?

They’re all old-school New York City bars that are getting young again thanks to Gen Z. These budding city dwellers are frequenting the iconic staples of Manhattan yore, reported The New York Time’s Alyson Krueger, bringing a youthful energy to high-polished establishments used to serving older, wealthier customers.

That these iconic city staples survived the pandemic has spurred nostalgia among the generation, who see them as a symbol of “a rich history and resilient spirit,” Krueger wrote.

As Gen Zer Julia Berry told Krueger, “When you look around, so many places are closing, and all these modern places are popping up. It made me want to experience something special while I still can.”

Selecting haunts and night spots based on a yearning for times past is the latest in the “nostalgia economy” that Gen Z has been creating during the pandemic. Research has shown that in moments of economic turmoil, humans are more likely to feel nostalgia.

Gen Z has certainly been evidence of that, reviving fashions from the time before social media took over. They’ve turned to everything from Y2K trends like baggy jeans and corded headphones to “old-money” prep. They’re also throwing it back to ’90s entertainment, watching Friends re-runs and crowning Adam Sandler their favorite celebrity.

Because for the youngest generation, what’s cool is what’s old, even in the city that never sleeps.

A boost to NYC’s economy

The influx of young’uns may be a new challenge for bar managers of these classic spots, who now spend their days managing large crowds and making sure Gen Z is following the dress code — which typically doesn’t include the generation’s beloved ripped jeans or tank tops. It’s also another healthy boost to NYC’s economy.

Formerly the US epicenter of the pandemic during the first coronavirus wave last spring, NYC watched many of its young professional transplants head back to their parents’ homes and its wealthy residents flee upstate or down south for more space. Meanwhile, pandemic restrictions made it difficult for the city’s small businesses to stay alive, and many had to temporarily or permanently shutter.

NYC’s economy took a hit, fueling a narrative that the city had met its demise. But a year later, the city began to spring back to life, partly due to young New Yorkers. The pandemic was no match for this cohort, who still felt the pull of the city in a vaccinated world.

So many of them returned or moved to the city this year to take advantage of pandemic rents that it caused the rental market to snap back past pre-pandemic norms.

“You had a lot of pent-up demand from people who either temporarily left or were planning to move to the city at some point and put those plans on hold,” Jay Parsons, vice president and deputy chief economist at real estate software company RealPage, previously told Insider. He cited college graduates as an example. “It’s always been a magnet for young adults.”

He added: “It’s New York. A lot of people want to be in the city.”

For Gen Z, being in the city means experiencing its history. Their nostalgia isn’t just reviving NYC’s economy, but the spirit of NYC itself.

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Meet the typical Gen Zer, who is quitting their job, has over $17,000 in student debt, and is influencing nearly everything you buy

Gen Z
Gen Z is ready for the spotlight.

  • Gen Z, the oldest of whom turn 24 this year, is the new “it” generation.
  • They’re setting trends in fashion and in the workplace, influencing consumer and worker behavior.
  • And they’re saving more than they’re spending and set to dominate the economy in 20 years.

Gen Z has stolen the crown from millennials as the media darling of the moment. 

The generation, the oldest of whom turn 24 this year, is in the spotlight as they begin to wield influence over lifestyle, work, and consumer trends. Look no further than various headlines promising how-to meet Gen Z demands in the workforce or market beauty brands to them.

It’s a coming-of-age story, and Gen Z is shaking things up as they enter young adulthood. They’re the first digitally native generation and they’re best reached online, where they’re often catapulting new trends. They’re innovative, entrepreneurial social activists, ready to create and shape a better world.

They were hit by the pandemic during some of their most formative years, which could shape their futures over the long term. The oldest members of the “TikTok generation,” who graduated into a recession, run the risk of repeating millennials’ economic plight, but they’re already showing signs of behaviors that could define them for years, trying to save and invest early and embrace a lifestyle based on thrift.

By size and spending power, they’re set to take over the economy in a decade, but their spending restraint and skepticism about markets could make that economy very different.

While it’s hard to capture an entire generation when some members are still teens and others are adults — demographic differences that produce data filled with caveats — here’s what life looks like for the typical Gen Zer in 2021.

Gen Z emerged in the limelight during the pandemic, taking over as the latest “it” generation.

zillennials millennials gen z

Gen Z is the most ethnically diverse generation in history and set to unseat millennials as the most educated generation, too. But Jason Dorsey, who runs the research firm Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK), says they’re not millennials 2.0.

“They are really a distinctive generation with a different set of parents raised at a different time, that are coming into the world with some different views,” he said, adding that the oldest members are entering the life stage in which they’re exerting enough influence to take the mantle as the “it” generation.

Society feels like it finally understands millennials, he explained, and is switching focus to the next generation, which remains a mystery. That leaves Gen Z “shifting and driving much of the conversation,” and he predicted they’ll do so for the next 15 years.

They’re the first generation to grow up in a wholly digital era, making them tech-savvy and mobile-first.

gen z

Gen Z was born into a world marked by technology, the internet, and social media. The average Gen Zer got their first smartphone just before their 12th birthday. They communicate primarily through social media and texts, and spend as much time on their phones as older generations do watching television.

The pandemic heightened their digital behaviors. With ample time to scroll on their phones, they digitally bonded with one another as many moved back home during the pandemic at a similar life stage, Dorsey said.

This helped TikTok, Gen Z’s favored platform, blow up during the pandemic. By September 2020, the social media app had grown by 75%, and expanded into intergenerational use. It signals the growing influence of Gen Z in leading consumer behavior, much like millennials did with Instagram.

Like millennials before them, the typical Gen Zer has had — and will have — their share of economic troubles.

gen z

The pandemic put Gen Z on track to repeat millennials’ money problems. As is typical with recessions, the youngest workers were hit hardest. Gen Z students could lose $10 trillion of life cycle earnings due to Covid lockdowns, the World Bank has estimated.

Bank of America Research report called “OK Zoomer” found that the pandemic will impact Gen Z’s financial and professional future in a similar way to how the Great Recession did for millennials.

“Like the financial crisis in 2008 to 2009 for millennials, Covid will challenge and impede Gen Z’s career and earning potential,” the report reads, adding that a significant portion of Gen Z entered adulthood in the midst of a recession, just as a cohort of millennials did.

“I’m a little worried about ending up like those who graduated around 2008,” Maya Tribitt, a junior at the University of Southern California, previously told Insider. “A lot of the fear people my age have about getting jobs right out of college have come from the horror stories of people 10 years older than us. It’s really scary to think that might be our new reality.”

But the typical Gen Zer is already trying to build wealth, hoping to avoid millennials’ record of falling behind.

A young Gen Z person walking and looking at phone

As of 2017, 70% of Gen Zers were already earning their own spending money, per a CGK survey. That’s the same amount as millennials, who are 10 years older on average. 

A follow-up CGK survey in 2020 found that the pandemic has taught Gen Z how to be frugal. They’ve begun saving money and investing earlier than previous generations did, and they’re seeking good job benefits, Dorsey said.

More than half (54%) of Gen Zers are saving more since the pandemic began than prior to it, according to the State of Gen Z report. Thirty-eight percent have opened an online investment account, while 39% have opened an online bank account.

Despite investing earlier, though, Gen Z is going to have to work harder to get a return. They’re set to earn less than previous generations on stocks and bonds, as Credit Suisse’s global investment returns yearbook found Gen Z can expect average annual real returns of just 2% on their investment portfolios — a third less than the 5%-plus real returns that millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers have seen. 

Their average credit-card debt is $1,963, less than any other generation.

gen z

Gen X has the most debt because they’re in their prime spending years, followed by boomers, according to an Experian Consumer Debt study

It makes sense. With the oldest members of the generation in their early 20s, and the majority of the cohort still in its teen years, Gen Z has yet to enter their prime earning years or come into full spending power. The oldest are still getting their feet off the ground in the workplace, and most don’t have assets like a house and a car as older generations do.

That’s not to say Gen Z is debt-free. On average, they carry loan debt of $15,574.

They have less student-loan debt than other generations — an average of $17,338 — but that’s likely to grow as the generation ages into college life.

a college graduation ceremony during the pandemic
Gen Z has a smaller student-debt burden than other generations.

So says the Experian study.

What was once largely viewed as a millennial problem is now becoming an issue for Gen Z. The generation holds 7.37% of the national $1.57 trillion student loan debt, but college is only getting more expensive. That share is expected to grow as more Gen Zers enroll in college.

The future of student debt is highly uncertain, as President Joe Biden campaigned on canceling thousands of debt for each student, but he’s been reluctant to actually do it since his election. The Democratic Party is in something of a civil war over Biden’s authority to cancel debt unilaterally, leaving borrowers at a standstill. 

Despite their good money habits, the typical Gen Zer drove debt growth during the pandemic. They owe $16,043 on average.

ggen z

Gen Z had the most debt growth of any generation between 2019 and 2020, with the average balance increasing by 67.2% from $9,593, per the Experian report. But that’s still less debt than all other generations have, and Experian said the increase “seemed to track with age — the greatest growth occurred among the youngest consumer group.”

That growth was mainly across mortgage and personal loan debt; Gen Z owe $169,470 and $6,004, respectively. It seems, then, that homebuying Gen Zers are leading the charge in their generation’s debt upswing.

But the typical Gen Zer is still set to take over the economy in a decade.

Gen Z hangs out in a group setting and takes a selfie

Bank of America Research’s “OK Zoomer” report found that Gen Z will fare well in the long run. The generation currently earns $7 trillion across its 2.5 billion-person cohort, it stated. By 2025, that income will grow to $17 trillion, and by 2030, it will reach $33 trillion, representing 27% of the world’s income and surpassing that of millennials the following year.

Research and advisory firm Gen Z Planet recently found that the generation is saving and investing more than it’s spending, and now holds $360 billion in disposable income. 

They’re already influencing consumer behavior. The typical Gen Zer is rebelling against all things 2010s, while reviving the trends of the early millennium.

gen z baggy jeans

Research has shown that, in moments of economic turmoil, humans are more likely to feel nostalgia. Gen Z’s version of a nostalgic escape from the pandemic is reviving the fashions from the time before social media took over. 

From wired headphones to claw clips and baggy jeans, they’re reviving the Y2K trends of yore in what Sara Fischer of Axios has deemed a “throwback economy.” Corded headphones instead of AirPods, for example, are a way for Gen Z to make an “anti-finance bro” statement.

They’ve also been lusting after an “old money” aesthetic characterized by Oxford shirts, tennis skirts, and tweed blazers, a sharp contrast from the “California rich” look of the Kardashians and the casual outfits of the new millennial billionaire class that characterized the 2010s. 

Prior to the pandemic, the VSCO girl had the internet buzzing. Characterized by a natural look that embodied a crossover between ’90s fashion and a surfer lifestyle, she was a contrast to the contoured faces and lip fillers of Instagram influencers. Gen Z’s continued embrace of nostalgia is showing she was no fluke, but the harbinger of a new (old) look.

Their love for nostalgia explains why the typical Gen Zer likes to shop at thrift stores.

gen z y2k

Thrifting is booming thanks to Gen Zers in search of sustainable, stylish clothes.

“I’ve kind of stopped buying clothes from traditional stores,” Gen Zer Grace Snelling told Axios. “People almost respect you if what you’re wearing is thrifted, and it looks good because you’ve managed to pull off a cool outfit, and it’s sustainable.”

Recycling and reselling clothes helps the digitally native generation wear new-to-them outfits on a budget they haven’t yet posted to social, avoiding repeating looks. It’s also a tool to start a lucrative side hustle, in which some are raking in as much as $300,000 a year on apps like Depop and Poshmark.

The trend goes beyond clothing. Gen Z (and millennials) are even increasingly eschewing mass-market home decor for vintage furniture, Insider’s Avery Hartmans reported

It’s not just fashion. The typical post-college Gen Zer is taking their contrarian views to the workplace.

gen z worker

Gen Z is asserting new norms in the workplace, and eschewing the ones implemented by millennials before them. The New York Times’ Emma Goldberg wrote that young 20-somethings are challenging tradition by delegating work to their boss, asking for mental health days, working less once they’ve accomplished their tasks for the day, and setting their own hours. 

It’s part of what Erika Rodriguez called a “slow-up” in a recent opinion piece for the Guardian, referring to a permanent shift in slowing down productivity with the aim of having more separation from work. 

But some Gen Zers are quitting their jobs altogether, in what LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky called a “Great Reshuffle.” He said his team tracked the percentage of LinkedIn members who changed the jobs listed in their profile and found that Gen Z’s job transitions have increased by 80% during that time frame.

In August, a study by Personal Capital and The Harris Poll found that a whopping 91% of Gen Zers were keen to switch jobs, more than any other generation. While some are seeking greener pastures in other jobs, others are opting out of working altogether, bolstering the “antiwork” movement that embraces a work-free lifestyle.

While the vast majority of Gen Zers haven’t yet entered the workforce, it stands to reason they’ll be just as, if not more so, progressive than their older peers.

They’re also creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative both inside and outside work.

face shields students for hospitals
Part of the Students for Hospitals team.

“Gen Z is innovative and powerful,” Emma Havighorst, a 2020 graduate, told Insider last year. “The way we see the world is very different from prior generations.”

For three years, Havighorst has hosted the podcast “Generation Slay,” which profiles Gen Z creators and entrepreneurs like mental-health advocate Gabby Frost and nonprofit founder Ziad Ahmed. She said she thinks the pandemic will produce even more innovators.

“Necessity breeds invention,” she said. “We’ll be trying to figure out solutions to problems that plagued past generations.”

Consider high schoolers Daniel Lan and Jalen Xing, who created homemade face shields for hospitals during the pandemic, starting the initiative Students for Hospitals.

More than half (58%) of Gen Z respondents in a DoSomething Strategic survey said that, since the pandemic, they had picked up a new activity or were doing more of something they already enjoyed.

But perhaps most significantly of all, the typical Gen Zer is ready for change — and they’ll do what it takes to make that happen.

Gen Z

A generation whose childhood was defined by international protest movements including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, Gen Z has been at the forefront of activism, from the March for Our Lives anti-gun protest and the climate change movement. Arguably its most famous member is the climate-crisis activist Greta Thunberg.

2020 also put the generation front and center in the anti-police-brutality demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Social networking app Yubo and Insider polled 38,919 US-based Gen Zers, and found that 77% of respondents had attended a protest to support equality for Black Americans.

The generation also played a pivotal role in the 2020 election, Insider’s Juliana Kaplan reported, which may have finally captured the elusive youth turnout. Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) revealed youth voter turnout for 2020 was up by at least 5% from 2016 — and could have been up by as much as 9%.

It seems, then, that change may start with Gen Z.

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The era of shortages is unraveling the old American Dream. But that’s not a bad thing.

Child and father on a couch with American Dream imagery of a white picket fence, ford mustang, and a house above them.
The postwar American Dream is coming apart at the seams, but a new one is taking its place.

  • America is running out of everything in 2021: houses, workers, and all kinds of goods.
  • It’s caused the postwar American Dream, driven by consumerism, to come apart at the seams.
  • It could usher in a better economy with more freedom to live where you want, better working conditions, and less spending on stuff.

Insider’s Economy team has spent a lot of time waiting for furniture in 2021.

All 10 of us moved in the last year, and half of us bought new couches for our new pads. So far, we’ve spent a total of 45 weeks waiting for them to arrive. After a three-month wait, one editor’s couch arrived and it was the wrong size, so she had to return it. The wait is set to get even longer.

Just like us, most Americans aren’t taking couch shortages sitting down. Headline after headline bemoans the fact that many Americans won’t be reclining in the new couches they ordered for their pandemic digs anytime soon. 

This isn’t just a delivery breakdown. It’s also a sign of the way the American Dream is breaking down in 2021.

When writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the term in 1931, he defined the American Dream as the opportunity for a better life for all. The postwar boom of the 1950s introduced the house, white picket fence, and other consumerist trappings of the suburban idyll. The global health crisis that ushered in an era of shortages 70 years later is changing everything again.

The housing shortage, the labor shortage, and the supply shortage are coalescing in 2021 to challenge every aspect of the 20th-century American Dream: The affordable house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, the job that pays well and provides meaning, and the consumer culture that meets every need and desire. Americans are at a fork in the road, so what will the next dream be?

Housing has become a choose your own adventure

The American Dream home became a choose your own adventure quasi-gameshow during the pandemic.

Remote work freed knowledge workers from the chains of office life, bringing the postwar dream in sight as workers snapped up nearly every suburban home. But the dream of suburbia was stronger than the market’s ability to support it, as the ensuing housing shortage left America short millions of homes. It boxed aspiring first-time homeowners out of a cash-is-king seller’s market.

As housing prices continued their upward climb to a record highs of $386,888, the American Dream splintered into four different versions of a better life. “While considerable numbers of folks are still convinced that having the proverbial white picket fence will signify they’ve achieved the American Dream, many others are realizing there are other perfectly valid interpretations of the concept,” Larry Samuel, the founder of Age Friendly Consulting and author of “The American Dream: A Cultural History,” told Insider. 

A healthy 59% of Americans still aspire to be homeowners, a sign of the lingering allure of the post-World War II vision. But suburbia is now mostly attainable for the wealthy, less accessible to the 68% of millennials who have their sights set on homeownership. 

open house
The housing shortage has boxed many out of the housing market.

Alyssa Cinami, 32, who has spent 14 months house-hunting and put in five rejected bids, described the market to Insider as “insane, and very discouraging for first-time buyers who can’t compete with people with lots of cash.”

It prompted some 40,000 Americans in May and June alone to turn to more affordable housing in the exurbs, a rural community that is distantly commutable to a big city, or even further out to areas that urbanist Richard Florida has deemed “the rural fringe.” 

Others are finding alternative options in a life on the go, bypassing debt-based homeownership for a more mobile lifestyle in a tiny house or a van, both of which saw a boom in sales since the pandemic began.

But that doesn’t mean cities are dead. Skyrocketing rents and the 60% of wealthy millennials who plan to buy a home in a big city within the next year indicates that city life still holds an allure. Now, urbanites are living there because they want to, not because they need to for work, and it’s reshaping cities as a place centered around personal interaction rather than the office.

As Samuel said, “The new white picket fence can be said to be the freedom and peace of mind that comes with not having to do whatever it takes to keep the fence.”

Power is slowly shifting from employers to workers, and leaving shortages in its wake

For decades, the American Dream has valued the ideal of wealth through meaningful work: You want to work hard enough that you’ll amass enough wealth to buy all the things you want, like a house, a TV, or a car.

But the economic reality for many workers hasn’t kept pace with these all-important items. Wages have been declining for five decades; the student debt meant to finance the educations that supply the American Dream has skyrocketed, trapping many in untenable cycles of debt. Meanwhile, the opportunities available to workers are increasingly low wage.

The pandemic tightened the screws even further, with billionaires notching trillions in gains as low-wage workers found themselves on the frontlines — or just out of a job completely.

Workers have taken advantage of the hot post-vaccine labor market. For six months, Americans have been quitting in record numbers, with 4.4 million in September alone. Meanwhile, thousands of workers have gone on strike to demand better conditions. The workers that have joined “the Great Resignation” are effectively on strike, too, many of them expressing a new philosophy of “antiwork,” where they document quitting over exploitative conditions and contemplate a future where work is decentralized from life.

Spirit Airlines pilot strike
Spirit Airlines pilots are on strike.

“I think that it has a lot to do with Gen Z,” Kade, a Gen Z antiworker in Kansas, told Insider. After reading antiwork for months, he quit his job when his boss said they would confiscate phones if they caught workers on them. Gen Z doesn’t “put up with employers’ crap anymore, like the abuse and the low pay,” Kade said. 

“We’re getting tired of it.”

These are still drops in the bucket against decades of stagnant wages and a weakened labor movement. But trends like antiwork seem to be making an impact, as employers have gone from continually bemoaning labor shortages to raising wages and offering better benefits.

Businesses shifting from becoming customer-centric to employee-centric could “start a lot of healing,” Steve Rowland, the host of Retail Warzone, a podcast chronicling retail workers’ “horror stories,” told Insider.

“Customers are important, but your employee base is what keeps you going,” Rowland said. “The first company that does that, you’ll see a huge change — that’ll all of a sudden be the company that people want to work for.”

Supply chain shortages force a rethink of consumption 

It’s not just couches — there’s a shortage for every kind of thing. 

Factory shutdowns as a result of pandemic safety restrictions and labor shortages, congested shipping ports, the US-China trade war, bad weather, and global traffic jams have led to wait times for many Americans who became used to a “just-in-time economy” in the 2000s.

Part of it is a snarled supply chain and part of it is that Americans are just buying more, well, stuff. As the economy reshaped to prioritize remote work and a spread-out populace, Americans had more use for gym equipment and new TVs and less need to go to restaurants and hotels. The demand has outstripped supply at the same time that the supply has broken down.

The runaway spending could exacerbate the labor shortage: Rowland said that angry customers demanding their holiday goods could prompt workers to “start throwing their hands up in the air and walking out the door. They’re just not going to take it.” 

Container ships at the backlogged Port of Los Angeles in September 2021.
Container ships at the congested Port of Los Angeles in September 2021.

Canadian political scientist Krzysztof Pelc argued in the Financial Times that the key to happiness, and the next step in the evolution of our economy, is buying less stuff and more experiences. He explains that a shift toward service spending is a hallmark of developed economies, with effects on growth. 

Advanced societies may come to view high growth, spurred by goods consumption, not as progress, but a “necessary stage” of it. “The challenge is then to recognise when the moment has come for a shift in social purpose.”

Gen Z seems to agree with Pelc: Research and advisory firm Gen Z Planet recently found that the generation is saving and investing more than it’s spending, and now holds $360 billion in disposable income. 

Coming of age amidst the greatest economic catastrophe in 100 years could shape their economic behavior for decades to come, and early signs indicate they aren’t just “antiwork” — they’re anti-spending and pro-thrift, too. That means companies might have to appeal to their thrifty ways and higher standards for work to survive the era of shortages.

Gen Z may be saying they’re thrifty while shopping just as much as older generations. But maybe, just maybe, the new American Dream is coming into view.

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A majority of Gen Z investors think crypto will make them millionaires, new survey shows

Eggs with currency signs in wooden packing on a blue background. Golden egg with a bitcoin sign.
  • The majority of Gen Z investors think crypto will make them millionaires, a recent study by Engine Insights showed.
  • “This generation has a greater acceptance and comfort with all things digital,” an expert told Insider.
  • “They feel that everything financial is harder for them than it was for previous generations,” an expert said.
  • Sign up here for our daily newsletter, 10 Things Before the Opening Bell.

It sometimes seems crypto is minting new millionaires by the day, particularly those with the stomach to dabble in the risky world of altcoins. The most famous of these — like doge and shiba inu — have produced some eye-watering returns in 2021. 

It’s no surprise then that investors are flocking to the space with dreams of quick riches, and Gen Z investors in particular think crypto will make them millionaires, a recent study by data analytics firm Engine Insights showed.

Nearly two thirds — 59%  — of Gen Z respondents to the survey believe they could become wealthy by investing in cryptocurrencies.

“This generation has a greater acceptance and comfort with all things digital, so not surprising that would be more comfortable with crypto,” Kathy Sheehan, SVP at Cassandra, a division of Engine Insights, told Insider. “This generation has a lot of concerns about debt and finances.”

A confluence of factors, from the rising costs of real estate to college education could be to blame, Sheehan told Insider. Inflation reaching 30-year highs has only reinforced the appeal of crypto as the weakening of fiat money dominates headlines.

“They feel that everything financial is harder for them than it was for previous generations,” Sheehan said. “Couple that attitude with more of an appetite for risk, it is not surprising that they are hoping for a quick fix or return.”

Gen Z, a group of about 72 million people in the US born between 1997 and 2012, is the most diverse generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation

Broadly, this generation is progressive, pro-government, and activist-minded. They have also grown up in a period of watershed cultural moments including #MeToo and the post-George Floyd era, weathering a disruptive global pandemic on top of it all. 

The survey, whose findings are based on responses from 1,027 people in November, also found that if offered $2,000 to invest, Gen Z respondents are three times more likely to buy digital assets compared to baby boomers, and twice as likely to consider virtual currency a “legit currency.”

The crypto market has fluctuated wildly this year, but has generally been trending higher. The crypto market capitalization hit $3 trillion recently. 

Bitcoin has gained 100% since the start of the year, while ether is up 480%. Meme coins have had it better, with dogecoin rising 4,835% year-to-date and shiba inu skyrocketing 63,490,000%. 

Many retail investors poured multiple rounds of government stimulus checks into stocks and crypto, helping fuel the surge in both markets seen during the pandemic. 

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Meet the Gen Z founders who created a music app to help combat pandemic-induced anxiety and depression

Two men in gray shirts hold up cell phones
(L) Travis Chen and (R) Brian Femminella

  • Travis Chen and Brian Femminella are the founders of the mental health app SoundMind.
  • The duo felt there was a lack of reliable mental health resources that could help people during the pandemic. 
  • This is part of Insider’s entrepreneur series Star, Rising which highlights early entrepreneurs.

Name: Travis Chen and Brian Femminella 

Age: 22 and 21

Location: Seattle, Washington; Los Angeles, California  

Business: SoundMind, a music therapy app designed for those experiencing trauma, depression, and anxiety.

Backstory: The pandemic created a mental health crisis: People were isolated from others, while massive death tolls were broadcast across the news. Nurses and doctors dealt with unprecedented patient overflow in the hospitals, while families watched funerals on YouTube.

Travis Chen and Brian Femminella felt there was a lack of reliable mental health tech resources that could help with such levels of stress and trauma, so they launched the therapy app SoundMind in November of this year. The app uses music, created by an in-house composer team, to help reduce anxiety. It also directly connects users with useful resources, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 

“It not only was critical to start a tech app but to start building a community that is a lasting movement for people to be inspired by and hold onto, especially when times are tough,” Femminella told Insider. 

Product imagery of the app SoundMind

Growth: SoundMind’s launch party at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles was attended by actors like Jennings Brower, who has 3.4 million followers on TikTok, and Matthew Dennis Lewis, who starred in Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit.” 

To date, SoundMind has raised six figures in pre-seed funding, but the round will officially close in December. It also has corporate partnerships with organizations such as therapy service Okay Humans and digital business card company Popl to host mental health-related collaborations and events. Next year, SoundMind will launch a creators platform to commission artists, such as musician Nick Tangorra, who will create music specifically for the company. 

Before SoundMind: Chen graduated from the University of Southern California in 2021, and Fremminella is finishing up his senior year at the same university. Previously, both were legislative interns on Capitol Hill and for the past four years, Femminella has served in the US Army reserves. Fremminella also worked at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies on the artificial intelligence research and development team.  

Challenges: Both founders had to deal with investors questioning their young ages. Additionally, Femminella, who is openly gay, learned how to fully embrace his sexuality rather than hide it from backers. Meanwhile, Chen had to convince others of the importance of taking Asian-American mental health seriously.

A group of people stand wearing a white shirt smiling to the camera
Team photo of SoundMind

Business Advice: “You are going to fall down, but it is how you get back up and continue to build — with the knowledge you learned from past mistakes — that showcases who you truly are,” Femminella said. 

Business Mentor: Femminella counts Dr. Scott B. Spencer of USC’s Thornton school of music as someone who’s helped him conduct research for the app. Chen leans on his 89-year-old grandfather, who taught him the importance of giving back. 

Why now is the best time to start a business: The pandemic helped push people to pursue their passions more, Chen said. “It’s the prime time to do everything you can, eventually find what you love doing, and who you like doing it with,” Chen added. 

On hiring: They currently have five full-time people on staff, including the two people on the in-house composer team. SoundMind plans to double the company’s staff by the end of 2022.

On managing burnout: Chen spends time with his family and friends, and enjoys hiking. Femminella takes long breaks away from social media and loves SoulCycle. “I like to skydive, crazy right?” he added. It’s “to really see the world and hear nothing but the air and the sound of the parachute as a way to reset my mind.”

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With buy now, pay later, millennials are most likely to feel the brunt of a post-holiday ‘financial hangover,’ expert says

couple sitting on the floor in their home wearing holiday headbands shopping online from a smartphone
  • Millennials and Gen Z may not be as cautious with their finances going into the holiday season, report says.
  • Younger shoppers are opting for buy now, pay later payment plans for their holiday shopping.
  • A credit expert shares how to avoid incurring large expenses and debt with strategic planning.

As pandemic stresses continue to subside, shoppers are ready to do some holiday spending — even if that means taking a significant hit to their bank accounts. 

A report from Creditcards.com shows that millennial shoppers are more willing to go into debt to this holiday season than any other generation. The findings come amid a particularly strained holiday season, as supply shortages and shipping delays limit the amount of time available to make major purchases and inflation raises the cost of goods and services across the retail market.

According to the report, 56% of millennials who celebrate the winter holidays are willing to go into the red while shopping for gifts. Additionally, 18% of surveyed millennials said they are likely to spend more this year than last year, compared to Gen Z and baby boomers, at 16% and 10%, respectively. 

“Each generation has their own financial background and their own financial struggles,” Ana Staples, a credit analyst and co-author of the report, told Insider. “It’s kind of a trend with millennials, that they’re willing to go into debt for things.”

Staples said much of this behavior is a result of being “desensitized to feeling uncomfortable financially” as a result of experiencing two major economic recessions, an unsteady labor market, and high rates of student debt.

Some millennial shoppers are planning to resort to buy now, pay later (BNPL) services to ease the immediate burden of holiday shopping. Services like Klarna, Affirm, and Afterpay, which have all ramped up their marketing efforts ahead of the holidays, have become more popular with younger generations that often prefer to pay in installments and are more comfortable using payment alternatives.

While Staples said BNPL can be a good financial tool if used responsibly, she cautioned of its dangers. “Just like any kind of debt, it requires caution and a realistic repayment plan for the buyer to avoid unpleasant financial consequences.”

And though 25 to 40-year-olds are more likely to accept instant gratification in the moment and pay for it later, they are also good at saving. According to the report, 44% of millennial respondents said they are likely to actively search for deals and coupons for holiday shopping. Some noted willingness to employ budgeting tactics, like putting a price limit on gift exchanges, making homemade gifts, and buying used items.

Meanwhile, one out of four millennials indicated they are not interested in looking for opportunities to save money this holiday season, and these costs can add up.

According to the survey, millennials are hypothetically willing to spend around $262 on spouses or significant others, and $326 per child. For a family of four — two millennial parents and two children under 18 — holiday gifts can creep up to more than $1,100.

Despite the possible pitfalls that younger spenders may face, Staples said it’s possible to proceed with caution by engaging in “strategic splurging” that circumvents a “financial hangover” in the new year. 

Determining whether a purchase is necessary at a given moment is key, she said, and having doubts is a sign that it should be delayed or skipped altogether. Setting up a holiday budget, continuing to look for deals, and comparing prices will all go a long way toward saving money, she added.

Those who decide to incur debt should do so with a 0% APR credit card to avoid interest and have more monthly payment flexibility, she said. 

“I just really encourage being careful with your spending during this holiday season and having a good replacement plan, if you do end up going into debt,” Staples said.

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Millennials are making mobile homes a new symbol of the American Dream

mobile home
Younger generations are finding new ways to propel economic mobility.

  • Trailer parks, tiny houses, and RV sites are booming in Austin, Bloomberg reported.
  • The pandemic has accelerated a shift to living in mobile homes, a globalization expert told Insider.
  • Younger generations are leading the way, he said, and it’s opening up paths to economic and social mobility.

Fifteen miles east of downtown Austin, Texas, a community known as Oak Ranch is growing.

But it’s not an Austin suburb. It’s a trailer park, and the incoming residents fueling its growth happen to be Tesla workers. 

So reported Bloomberg’s Michael Smith and Shelly Hagan in an article detailing Elon Musk’s influence in the Austin housing market. The city has been a magnet for Americans seeking more space, fewer taxes, and warmer weather during the pandemic, with a particularly strong pull towards those in Silicon Valley. The Tesla CEO is no exception, as he famously decamped from California to Texas during the pandemic.

But when the world’s richest man moves to town to build a new Tesla Gigafactory, it’s no surprise that an affordability crisis follows. Tesla promised 5,000 to 10,000 “middle-skill” jobs paying a little under $50,000 a year at its factory, but that doesn’t go far in a city where the median house listed is $525,000. Austinites are making lemonade with the latest economic lemons they’ve been given, by turning to trailer parks like Oak Ranch, tiny houses, and RVs.

As globalization expert Parag Khanna wrote in his new book, “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us,” the trailer home “is the ultimate symbol of the new American mobility.” He told Insider that this type of small home is bigger than ever during the pandemic, and it’s thanks to younger generations.

The trailer home is becoming cool

Khanna’s book explores how the youth are shaping the future with a mobile lifestyle. The trailer home is a key part of that, he wrote, emerging as a “trendy, cost-effective, and sustainable alternative to traditional homeownership.”

To be clear, a trailer home is typically used to refer to a prefabricated house, such as a mobile or manufactured home. There are differences between all of these, and they are not the same as a tiny house or a camper van, both of which fall more into the RV category.

All of these alternative lifestyles have something in common that Khanna is referring to: they enable owners to live a more nomadic lifestyle and present a more affordable solution to aspiring homeowners in a time when housing prices are sky high.

That’s exactly what many millennials were seeking in the 2010s, causing mobile and minimalist living like the tiny house movement and #vanlife to to take off.

Now facing their generation’s second housing crisis, and freed from the office in an era of remote work, they’ve been even more inclined to turn to a life on wheels since the pandemic began. Millennials in Austin are one cohort exemplifying this trend, real estate broker Matt Menard told Bloomberg.

“Their instinct is, ‘I’m not going to be stuck in place. I’m not going to take on more debt. I don’t need to own that home,'” Khanna said.

Since the pandemic began, makers of camper vans, RVs, and travel trailers have been updating on existing builds or creating new floor plans to accommodate the growing market. Tiny house builders saw sales fly last year, and the number of Americans who would consider living in one increased from 53% in 2018 to 56% in 2020, according to two separate studies.

Khanna argues that the increase in trailer living is a good thing because physical mobility opens up paths to economic and social mobility. He said it’s even creating a new version of the American Dream. The new version of the “picket fence,” he said, is having a tiny home that’s mobile enough to give you a view of Boise, one week, and Tahoe the next. 

“When people move, their circumstances improve,” he told Insider, likening it to a mouse in the wheel who stays inside their cage to run faster. The solution, he said, is to move to a different cage.

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