There is a number of online “alternative lifestyle” movements that have been gaining steam among millennials. They are appealing in their leanness: do more with less. At first, they seem cute and liberating. Scores of Instagram influencers and bloggers romanticize these lifestyles, and their subreddits are buzzing with zealots. Key examples below:
FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early): live frugally now to save money as quickly as possible, then buy a place in a low cost-of-living area and live (mostly) off your savings.
Van Life: Buy a van, trick it out with a beautiful bed and a kitchen. Live lightly, travel the world, work remotely.
Tiny Houses: Nobody needs 5,000 square feet. Why not play with constraints, and build a full house with the square feet of a studio?
Remote Work: work your high-paying-job from a low-cost-of-living area, save up money, and save on commuting.
While these lifestyles are marketed as all about freedom, they come with major restrictions: they are overwhelmingly for the single and childless. Having children is very expensive, so it’s hard to make that work with FIRE. On the other hand, van life and tiny houses are logistically prohibitive to having children. By going down these routes, their adherents will delay having kids, likely by years. That’s usually a bad trade.
Not only do these lifestyles constrain, they also reflect a severe already-existing capital constraint. Broadly, all of these movements are reactions to poverty. Living in a van, tiny house, or remotely all stem from one factor: real estate in your preferred area (perhaps the place you call “home”) is too expensive. You can’t afford to buy or rent a real place there, so you move into an Instagrammable shed, or you move away altogether. These lifestyles are solutions to problems of poverty – but in making those solutions fashionable, they hide the ugly reality underneath.
Ultimately, these movements romanticize and hide the true generational poverty of millennials. This is a generation of people who will never retire, who may never even buy real estate of their own. In terms of intergenerational wealth, these people are screwed. And I would like to see that point raised and addressed, instead of making do with solutions of desperation.