A recent opinion column on Talking Points Memo began
On Tuesday, CNBC asked, if housing is getting more affordable, “why aren’t Millennials buying?” A piece in USA Today last month called us “skittish from the recession”—Hmm, wonder why?—and Bloomberg Businessweek thinks we’re just discerning shoppers. The most egregious of the what’s-up-with-Millennials articles, however, is still a 2012 piece for The Atlantic that called Millennials “The Cheapest Generation.” It expended more than 2,000 words to explain “why Millennials aren’t buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.”
“The largest generation in American history might never spend as lavishly as its parents did—nor on the same things,” it reads. “Since the end of World War II, new cars and suburban houses have powered the world’s largest economy and propelled our most impressive recoveries. Millennials may have lost interest in both.”
No one, the writer noted, mentioned student debt.
I’ve made this point many times, and I will not belabor it here and now. (Okay, maybe a little.) But the fact remains that the American economy depends upon consumption. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about a consumer economy–there are cultural consequences that are anything but pretty–but at this point in this country, those concerns are beside the point.
Anything that reduces people’s ability to buy what American businesses are selling hurts the economy, and that hurts everyone–be they “makers” or “takers,” Captains of Industry or proprietors of the local Subway.
When the great majority of Americans lack buying power–when large numbers of the working poor have no disposable income, when hundreds of thousands of college graduates (and dropouts) have little or nothing left after making the payments on their student loans–economic growth comes to a screeching halt.
The oligarchs who oppose efforts to raise the minimum wage, the lackeys they’ve installed in elective office who are eviscerating unions under the rubric of “right to work,” and the retail and fast-food operators who are expanding their bottom lines by paying their employees less than a living wage, among others, could learn a lot from Henry Ford. Ford was, from all accounts, a thoroughly unpleasant person, but he understood a key fact that escapes too many of today’s poobahs: his profits–the success of his business– depended upon workers who were paid enough to afford his cars.
He understood something that is becoming clearer every day: pigs may get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.