By Peter Dorfman
I learned a new word the other day: “Workwashing.” According to Stowe Boyd, who I consider one of America’s most astute observers of trends in the workplace and the economy, workwashing is a verb meaning: “Providing a plausible and positive cover story by a business or industry to conceal the actual reasoning behind strategies that increase work inequities.”
Having been a freelancer for much of my career, I related to this immediately. It’s a public relations strategy that has been used relentlessly over the last two decades by Big Tech and other industries to build a two-tiered economy, where employers save massive amounts of money by shifting more and more work from employees to contractors.
The cover story is that increasing majorities of workers, especially younger creatives, prefer gig work to a full-time job. The myth is that millennials value the freedom to set their own schedules and be their own bosses over the niceties of formal employment — niceties like health insurance, paid time off and not having to provide their own workspace, computer, car or whatever else is needed to do the work.
I can easily picture a consortium of tech companies investing hundreds of millions of dollars in astroturf campaigns to convince Americans — and their lawmakers and regulators — that the gig economy is a benign haven for an emerging generation of worker/entrepreneurs.
It’s in their interest. App-based service providers footed the bill for a $205 million lobbying campaign in support of California Proposition 22, 2020’s most far-reaching employment-related ballot initiative. Voters there approved the definition of their drivers and delivery people who work on-demand through services like Uber and Lyft and use their own vehicles as independent contractors, not employees. They bought into a fabricated view of gig work, deliberately and expensively promoted by employers who stand to save billions for their investors by exploiting gig workers.
Freelancing works for a lot of people. It’s been okay for me, although buying health insurance as an individual often has been a painful burden. But I’m convinced that as a society-wide work practice, the gig economy is anything but benign. It’s a hustle, stacked against gig workers, many or most of whom have long ago abandoned any pretensions that freelancing equal personal freedom.
Here, the cover story is that millennials, collectively, prefer not to own things, but are more comfortable renting — cars, clothes, furniture — everything basically. They “value experiences over assets,” you see, and hate to be tied down. And further, the story goes, this extends to their homes as well.
Millennials were supposed to be a generation of renters — free-spirited urbanites who prefer not to be shackled to a permanent address, or a house with the attendant headaches of ownership and upkeep. Or a mortgage.
Which is — not to put too fine a point on it — a load of crap.
Realtor.com and the Harris polling organization recently got together on a survey of first-time home buyers (FTHBs), of which millennials — the largest demographic cohort ever — made up a major proportion of the sample. Some 4.8 million of them are turning 30 this year. And guess what? Millennials have the same kinds of housing preferences and concerns and make the same kinds of housing decisions as the rest of us.
The survey helps “lay to rest over a decade of much-publicized concerns about the millennial generation eschewing many of the prior generations’ preferences in regards to owning a home,” writes George Ratiu, a senior economist at Realtor.com. “As millennials have matured and moved into the stage of life where forming families and having children become important, they have embraced similar choices as the Gen X and Baby Boomer cohorts.”
The survey compares millennials’ choices and attitudes to those of their peers in two other cohorts: Generation X and earlier (including Boomers), and Gen Z, the generation now coming up behind the millennials.
Of course, the survey sample doesn’t include people who are struggling just to get by or at risk of homelessness — these are people who self-identify as FTHBs.
The point is that the millennials who are in a position to think about buying homes don’t think about this in any significantly different way by comparison with their older counterparts.
For example, asked why they want to buy a home, the most popular response in every age cohort was the same: “I want to be a homeowner.” More than 60% of millennial respondents chose this rationale, contradicting the received wisdom that members of this generation prefer to be renters.
Among the other responses to this question, millennials were the most likely of all respondents to choose “Not enough space in my current home.” (So much for the myth that this generation typically prefers smaller — and thus ostensibly more environmentally responsible — living spaces.)
Millennials were the most likely to respond “I want to build equity with my monthly payments.” That’s a rationale for home ownership Boomers generally express when asked about the financial benefits, but millennials evidently feel even more strongly about it.
And millennials — supposedly a generation preferring an urban lifestyle — were the cohort most likely to want to buy a home to get away from cities with large populations. Millennials have the strongest preference for a house with a big back yard.
Millennials, of course, are not having an easy time breaking into home ownership, for reasons of affordability and availability. They were the respondents most likely to say they can’t afford a down payment, can’t find a house they can afford and can’t compete in today’s seller’s market. But every age set is having a hard time in the current market; millennials aren’t uniquely burdened, nor is their response to the difficulty significantly different from their older counterparts.
Younger people are usually presumed to be more tech-savvy than Boomers. So it’s interesting to look at the data on adoption of the online tools for finding and assessing homes for purchase. FTHBs in all age groups use online search tools. But the cohort most likely to view the home via a video tour online are Gen X and older; millennials are the least likely to trust this method. And millennials prefer, more strongly than either their older or younger peers, an old school, in-person visit to the house with their realtor.
In short, despite elaborate mythologizing about the supposedly divergent thinking among millennials about home ownership, the generation entering their 30s now are just like their predecessors in the home ownership market, in terms of attitudes and inclinations.
They don’t, as a generation, buy into the absurd suggestion that renting somehow represents a more attractive lifestyle choice. They don’t prefer smaller living spaces. And while millennials are experiencing a good deal of frustration in the current supply-constrained market, they certainly have not backed off from buying homes when they can. Millennial home-buying is in fact one of the main drivers of this season’s extraordinarily high demand.
So where does the homewashing myth about millennial lifestyle choices come from, if not from millennials themselves? Follow the money.