Just Call Us Generation Rent

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By Kirsten Salyer

Young Americans are commitment-phobes, or so we’ve been told.

Today’s 20-to-34-year-olds (myself included) are reluctant to make big purchases or life decisions that depend on a financially secure future, Bloomberg News reports. Instead, we’re renting everything from apartments to cars to clothes. We’re postponing marriage. We’re more likely to move back in with our parents. Some of us are choosing to go to grad school instead of facing the job market.

It seems the only thing tied to many young adults is their share of the about $1 trillion student-loan debt.

Why shouldn’t we be cautious? Young adults are facing an unemployment rate that’s been above 8 percent since 2009. The median first-job salary has gone down $3,000 since 2007, from $30,000 to $27,000. More young adults are taking internships or temporary jobs -- the percentage of the U.S. workforce in temporary jobs is at a five-year high, 1.91 percent.

Commitment phobia isn’t a fad. For most, it’s an economic reality. Renting isn't a choice when you can’t afford to buy, or qualify for a loan, or count on being in the same job for more than a few months.

In 2011, the smallest percent of first-time home buyers purchased property since 2006, according to the National Association of Realtors. Rental property vacancy rates are the lowest since 2002. In Manhattan, rental prices in the second quarter rose the highest in five years compared to the same, 7.9 percent to a median price of $3,125.

Businesses are capitalizing on this renting trend, thanks to technology that makes it easier to give consumers access to goods and services at a low cost. The hourly car-rental business, made popular by Zipcar Inc. and now attracting Enterprise Holdings Inc. and Hertz Global Holdings Inc., is a $1.8 billion industry. Rent the Runway Inc. supplies designer fashions, CORT loans furniture, and Amazon recently started offering students the option of checking out textbooks.

Will this unattached lifestyle hurt young adults in the long run? In most places, buying a home is a better financial decision than renting if buyers live there longer than three years, and studies have shown homeownership leads to more stable communities. It may save them money in the short term, but in choosing to rent, young people may be giving up opportunity to accumulate wealth.

Young adults need the flexibility to take risks, not to change buildings every few months.

(Kirsten Salyer is the social media editor of Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Aug/09/2012 20:30 GMT