Monday, November 14, 2011

Generation X and Malaise

A couple of facebook friends linked a piece by NPR talking about how the current housing crisis has been impacted Generation X more than their boomer parents. In short since those in their early thirties bought their first house at the height of the boom, they are having a harder time recovering this is consistent with data that shows growing levels of wealth inequality between younger and older people.

Today seems like a good day to talk about the issue, since I sent off the paper work to purchase our first house. My thoughts on my own situation to purchase a house is somewhat independent of the general discussion below, but I know it influences my thoughts.

I have been thinking a lot about the resulting implication of the latest housing bust on my generation. I'm not one much for generalizing about generations, but I'm starting to see a trend emerge and perhaps it is the malaise of late generation x.

Malaise in my understanding is a vague sense of something isn't right. I'm not a student of history enough or was alive to remember the famous Malaise Speech by Jimmy Carter, which interestingly didn't feature the word.

Given the housing bust even those of us who didn't buy during the boom, we know friends that did (they are also the ones to post the article). There is a greater uneasiness of buying a house, which for a long time seemed link a sound investment. I think Megan McArdle summarized well the reasons for buying a house, which assumes "all calculations, mental and otherwise, were based on an assumption of no house price appreciation. " and I used similar assumptions and mental calculus as she did.

This uneasiness could also be reflected in generation x's retirement savings. This article in the Wall Street Journal is typical talking about gen X's movement away from stocks and into more conservative portfolios, which bucks conventional wisdom of take on risk when you are young.

In terms of education. Law school and other masters programs no longer seem like a good bet. When I advice students at Towson, I'm not sure what a good route is these days even for someone willing to work hard and with good skills.

This uneasiness isn't necessarily a bad thing. I have been trying to think more about how to prepare for the next crisis and not the past one. In my own field there could be a potential bust in the higher education sector. If enrollments and state budgets decline, while online courses increase. Could faculty members be like the manufacturing workers of the 60-70s? Clearly faculty have some advantages over the US manufacturing workers in terms protection from competition. To prevent this myself I try to ensure that I have other transferable skills (ie economic evaluation), which I think also complement my teaching. Faculty who don't strive to improve in other ways might fall victims to the next bust and wind up what economists called part of structural unemployment.

A little unease is good. If my generation responds to this by thinking/saving more before it purchases a house, saving more for retirement, and continuing to train, this malaise could turn out a good thing.

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