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Parents often hope that children will be better and happier than their parents, and we have some evidence that “millennials” – young people born between about 1982 and 2001 - are less tied to physical possessions than their parents. Federal Rail Administrator Joseph Szabao recently claimed that young Americans are leading a national trend away from energy-intensive automobile travel: his data shows that the average individual in the 16-to-34 age group cut his car miles traveled by 23 percent and increased his train and bus miles by 40 percent over the period from 2001 to 2009. Administrator Szabao opined: “We’re talking about the next generation, for whom it is a badge of honor to not own a car.” Another piece of evidence is that adults aged 21-34 bought 38 percent of all new vehicles sold in America in 1985, but just 27 percent in 2010. Zipcar, which sells car use by the hour, has become an alternative for young people who don’t need the ego gratification some of us in older generations got from owning expensive automobiles.
Millennials housing preferences also are moving away from the suburban, high-energy-consumption life style based on big houses and big cars. The head of strategic planning at the National Association of Realtors summarized the evolving youth market: “The types of properties young people are buying now are different…They are within walking distance of shopping centers. These buyers want bike shares and Zipcar. They like feeling connected.” So there is a future for smaller houses built in more dense, mixed-use neighborhoods that cut energy consumed, both in operating residences and in travel for work, schools and shopping.
Is it possible that young people are leading us away from “consumerism,” which I’ll define as: an ethic that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts, and in which consumers emulate people above them in the social hierarchy by trying to copy their betters’ consumption patterns? Are our children moving away from “materialism” I’ll define as: an excessive desire to acquire and consume material goods within a value system which rates people by their possessions, and which assumes that happiness usually increases with more consumption and more wealth?
There is a flickering hope that consuming less and being more satisfied with one’s life will go hand-in hand for 21st century leaders.
go hand-in-hand for our children, who will also be our future leaders.