American dream "breaking down"
as young reject home ownership


American dream "breaking down"

News: flexible high-tech rental apartments with moving "robo-walls" should replace speculative developments as young people increasingly view homes as services rather than possessions, according to Kent Larson, director of the Changing Places Group at MIT Media Lab (+ movie).

“People of the millennial generation are rejecting private cars, private homes, brands, owning a lot of stuff,” Larson said, speaking at the Urban Age Electric City conference in London last week. “They think of all these things as services rather than possessions and I think that will powerfully impact cities of the future.”

The cheapest generation

Larson said young people don't want the type of micro-apartments being proposed by mayors of major US cities. "Mayor Bloomberg of New York is saying in order for New York City to remain globally competitive, they have to make housing affordable for young people, so the idea is to just build tiny little apartments,” Larson said. “Mayor Thomas M Menino in Boston says the same thing. The problem is young people don't really like these tiny little apartments with a pull-out sofa.”

City chiefs in San Francisco this month voted to allow apartments as small as 20 square metres to help alleviate the housing shortage while New York floated a similar idea this summer. Boston and Vancouver are among other cities exploring the idea.

“The American dream of owning your house and owning your car and freedom and status and all of that, I think that's breaking down,” Larson said.

Changing Places Group transformable CityHome

Instead of micro-apartments, Larson believes the future lies with flexible, high-tech interior spaces that allow residents to customise them over time to suit their changing needs [above]. MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places Group, set up to explore new strategies for living and working spaces, has proposed a system of moving “robo-walls” and foldaway furniture that could fit within a standard loft-type space but provide greater flexibility than today’s apartments.

The CityHome proposal [above] also allows residents to generate their optimum dwelling configuration using software that analyses their lifestyle and living preferences.

“For the city I'm particularly interested in transformable houses; tiny little homes that function as if they were many times larger,” Larson said.

He added: “I don't believe in smart homes, I think that's a totally bogus concept. I  think builders only know how to build dumb things, so you want to bring smart things into the home.”

Generic high-rise residential blocks

Larson said the construction of vast, generic high-rise apartment blocks [above] to house newly urbanised populations was leading to “dreary, single-purpose residential ghettos that are almost totally dependent on the private automobile.”

Taipei. Photograph by Kent Larson

Residents in such developments often strive to personalise their homes, he said, showing a photograph of a high-rise development in Taipei where occupants had added balconies, awnings, glazing and other ad-hoc additions. “If you go to Taipei where I took this photograph [above], you see these generic commodity housing projects bursting with this expression of personalisation, you know kind of ad-hoc customisation,” Larson said. “They're illegal and often they are death traps, but it's a powerful sort of visual acknowledgement of that desire.”

He added: “I'm an architect, but it doesn't scale to have an architect work on homes for 300 million rural Chinese who are moving to the city over the next fifteen years. So we're looking at design algorithms where you match a personal profile to a solution profile, you assemble a completely configured apartment and then you give people the tools to go into that space and refine it using these kind of advanced computational tools.”

In future, it will become normal for people to share, rather than buy, the amenities they need, Larson argued. "We're moving towards shared resources in the office, shared desks, shared shops, shared fab-labs, shared electronics labs, shared recreational spaces."

More videos from the Changing Places Group can be seen here. Images are courtesy of Kent Larson.

  • paraphernal

    The idea that youth reject home ownership in the US is utterly perverse. Since 2008, when recession hit the economy and it has become almost impossible to obtain a home loan, this idea has been “cooked” by rapacious real-estators (with a little help from their preferred media voices – Suzie Orman, The New York Times, for example).

    Rental market has been highly profitable in the last two years; sadly, this does not reflect a trend in youth’s living options, but a consequence. Who on earth would prefer to spend all their life thickening up the landlord’s pockets for rental, instead of paying mortgage and eventually owning their house?

    • dru mckeown

      There are quite a few people who view mobility with much more importance then property ownership. I would rather have the ability to chase down the dream job (or client) then be saddled with decades of repair and upkeep work to look forward to.

    • Seoras Macdonald

      I’ll tell you who does prefer renting a home to buying: almost everyone in Germany (Europe’s most successful economy) and in France and so on. You may choose to decree they’re all stupid, but they’re laughing at you.

  • Jeff C. Keane

    I totally agree that younger people DO WANT to own their own homes! The true problem lies in both the greed of everyone involved in building subdivisions and the current rate of non-affordability of those houses and sites for first-time home-buyers.

    Aggravating these conditions, jobs and their locations are NOT nearly as stable as they were just 25 years ago! You can’t hope to pay off a house in 15 to 25/30 years with any semblance of a wavering economy.

    Most people don’t realise how utterly SIMPLE houses were built in the past. One would buy a base house and add to it as your income might rise over, say, the life of the mortgage, then your house would be a “home” and, by the way, you’d have had enough land to expand.

    Today, expectations are for that “complete” home. Noone wants or expects to have to work at ANYTHING they buy to make it better. You can cite many excuses for this ridiculousness, from low income to lack of time/knowlege. I just call it laziness.

    But, truly, I believe houses need to be much more modular in addition to energy-efficient, as in active and passive solar, and perhaps wind-power also. Interior spaces need to partition much more easily to respond to familial changes and other needs.

    Loft conversions to apartments or condos – flexable spaces – come to mind.

  • Jeff C. Keane

    Apparently, Mr Larson has spent WAY too much time THINKING about what young people want, VS. ACTUALLY ASKING a cross-section of them what they want!

    Just my observation on the MIT/Harvard “thought process”, based on years of observing their “thought-to-mouth” statements.

  • chris

    I have to agree with paraphernal. Every headline I read about the trends of the younger generation is put in active voice, as if everything young people do is a result of their infinite freedom to choose rather than a consequence of an increasing lack of options.

    The NYT is particularly guilty of this, publishing endless op-eds about how young people are foregoing college because they don’t want to be stifled by traditional and “irrelevant” curricula, because they all are going to be rich tech wizards like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg! Not because they can’t afford it anymore and student loan defaults are now the number one kind of credit-default in the country. Or how they prefer casual labor because it doesn’t impede their freedom to move. Or ever better: the explosion of unpaid internships: it’s because the young would do anything to work for a big interesting company in the big city! Just like on TV! Or how they are ditching marriage and families, because they don’t believe in commitment, or lack morals and are stuck in arrested development and not because the economic underpinnings necessary to raise a family have evaporated for many of them.

    Please. As if there’s any choice on our part. It’s true, thankfully, that many are genuinely happy to live a more sustainable life than previous generations, if that means more mass transit or smaller-scale living, but not owning your home – whatever its size – means you are giving up on the chance to invest in ownership and the places we’re always talking about – the great cities – are statistically in the long term places where home ownership is a profitable investment forgone if you cannot afford it. I just hope they are investing in something else, because history has shown repeatedly that whatever this world will be, it will always be a market capitalist nation where ownership and rent-seeking, not labor or creativity, will be the most profitable and stable economic activities.

  • VMarchetto

    I think this article fails to really capture the big picture of how my generation seeks to change our country. Sure, urban living is a part of it but that is a small piece of a much larger puzzle. If you think we want to be more green, or live in small apartments, or not have an automobile because it’s the “right thing to do”, you’re kidding yourself. And if you think there is no better way to live than the typical American dream then you are also kidding yourself.

    I’ll start with transit. People in the US have been blinded by the automobile. It represents a far superior, privatized way to get around; ultimate freedom. The problem is that good mass transit could be way more efficient and convinient if the same amount of resources were spent to develop mass transit infastructure over automobile infastructure.

    If you don’t believe me I would encourage you to spend some time in The Netherlands, where regional trains leave every five minutes, bike lanes are real bike lanes and the above-ground tram networks are very reliable. I watched my father commute to NYC every morning by car and spend over an hour each way in traffic. Someday I would like to take a Maglev train that seamlessly takes me to the city at 300mph. This is just one example of how a more sustainable lifestyle could be better, more convinient and enjoyable than the present American dream.

    The city itself has way more upsides than suburbs do. While, sure, I agree that suburbs were probably nicer places to live than 1950’s American Cities, our generation will strive to change that. I could go on about the city as a better place to live than the suburbs but that argument has been beaten to death and I think it’s clear which has more potential. I am an American and recent graduate of architecture school that is now living and working Germany because I enjoy being in a city where cars aren’t allowed: only people, bikes, and trams.

    To conclude, I want to reiterate the fact that I believe people do things because they work better, not because they are influenced by higher ideals. I will drive to work if that’s the fastest way to get there, so to speak. Our generation recognizes that the typical American dream is no longer the best way to do things and we will strive to create our own dream. Jim Kuntsler said, “If the 20th century was about getting around, the 21st century will be about being in places worth being in”. Our generation is going to transform American cities into places worth being in and then we are going to live there, which is why we need more urban housing.

  • Ogier de Beauseant

    Looking at pictures post-Sandy, one sees the biggest problem with American homes: crap built by grifter “developers”. Those acres of 2x4s left behind by Sandy! An automobile is a sophisticated product of mass production that makes a developer home look like it’s from the horse-and-buggy era. Build homes that are worth owning and maybe more of the – now educated – youth would want to buy them and they would maintain their value with little maintenance.

  • Scott

    Wow. On what planet do you think that these kids actually have a choice?! Here in Vancouver, we see gradual growth in co-op housing and co-op car sharing, not because it’s a neat idea, but because it’s currently the only defense against being fleeced! University educated baristas do not earn enough cash to fit in with the supposed “trend” being described above. These are not lazy people. They’re young, hungry, and desperate for opportunities, yet, there is a swelling segment of marketers that regard them as nothing more than cattle.

    I personally would love to own a home, where I can drive a nail into any wall I choose and change the appearance of any interior on a whim, simply because I can. The freedoms of ownership still outstrip the perceived restrictions and, rest assured, there’s a small segment of the population that will try to exploit that.

    The dream is, indeed, nearly dead, but only because the speculators have squeezed every ounce of value from it, leaving only the spent husk.

  • Colonel Pancake

    I shall live in a castle. With a moat. And a cellar full of peppermint Schnapps.

  • Douglas

    This kind of justifying crap is spouted by the property industry and its vested interests all the time in the UK. An increase in renting is cited as an indicator of preference rather than what it patently is: an indicator of what people resort to. Who are these idiots kidding? Spinning the characteristics of a housing crisis as though paying £350 a week for a tiny shared room within a three bedroom flat in London is some kind of funky lifestyle option.

    I’m married and secure as far as housing is concerned, but I can see big problems looming for the the younger generation. Trouble is, property is now built entirely for profit and housing people is the by-product. A subtle and insidious reversal of priorities within that equation has developed over the last two decades.

    Governments will never invest in true affordable housing (despite claiming and promising to) because the accompanying effect of a housing surplus is a drop in prices. Existing owners and investors won’t like that and any government is terrified of the effect this will have on their future electability.

  • I think the Millennials, in addition to being saddled with record student loans, are also products of what the labor market is today. Does it make sense to get even more leveraged with a mortgage and decrease your ability to “pick up and move” to a better job market.

    Gone are the days when a person can get a job and work at the same company all their lives (let alone for 5 years at a time). Young people in particular are living in a world where working at a single company for an extended duration of time is almost mythical at this point. It’s something they heard happened to people in the last century. So it really doesn’t make sense to decrease one’s mobility by being chained to a piece of land (or enclosed space if it is a condo).

    • Douglas

      You have a point, up to a point. Most of the better jobs are situated in London. So, if you were to afford to live here then London’s transport sytstem can easily facilitate job flexibility. For example, you could ensconce yourself in Peckham for thirty years whilst having a succession of jobs anywhere in the capital.

      Bring back good, respectable council housing like they did after WW2. There was absolutely no stigma attached to council housing thirty years ago and it was not in the least unusual for professionals like teachers, doctors, police etc to live on decent estates.

      Governments find endless cash to support the behest of capitalists and for political vanity projects like wars and Olympics, yet supposedly can’t find money from the collective public purse to house the next generation?