Young adults today are the most annoying since, well, the generation before them — at least if you listen to some of their older workplace colleagues and bosses.

Many argue that the generation born in the final two decades of the 20th century is made up of commitment-phobic, narcissistic kids with lots of Google-able surface-knowledge and no depth. Oh, and there are too many of them.

There might be a dose of jealousy to the criticisms; after all, the Baby Boomers spent most of their lives as the demographic elephant that tipped all American scales, and Generation X has often been treated like an afterthought. Heaps of data suggests that the professional and cultural coming of age of an enormous population bulb of young adults will lead them to a sort of social, and then economic, dominance in the United States.

Why should Hawaii care? After all, our population is older and substantive change tends to come more slowly in the islands — when it comes at all. And an economy that makes it increasingly hard for young people to establish themselves here — due to low salaries and high prices — might just slow the takeover by the “millennial generation.”

But we should pay attention for very different reasons. This up-and-coming generation has developed lifestyle tools for coping with its economic situation — especially downscaled opportunities — that have the potential to help Hawaii’s sinking middle class.

The next-generation lifestyles of technologically fluent young adults could help middle-class Hawaii to shave some key costs.

Flickr: Erin Nekervis

Let’s face it. The population of Hawaii isn’t young and it isn’t particularly open to substantive change. This is especially true when it comes to updating the foundations of the state’s economy or incorporating young talents and skills. Hawaii can no longer rely so heavily on the economic motors of its past — tourism, federal largess and military spending are unlikely to grow much, if at all — to help the middle class to an improved standard of living.

There are also few signs the overall cost of living will become meaningfully more affordable, despite recent drops in oil, gas and, to a lesser extent, electricity prices. Similarly, there isn’t much immediate hope that salaries will suddenly lurch upward to allow more locals to get the upper hand in their daily struggle with high costs.

Millennial Homes

From a price-of-paradise perspective, Hawaii should be able to relate to many of today’s young adults across America. After all, the millennial generation suffers from insufficient salaries, plenty of (student) debt and difficulties saving money; just like so many working people of all ages in Hawaii.

This generation that entered the working world in the shadow of the Great Recession can offer up tips to help island residents spend differently, and make their money stretch further — or at least better accept when they can’t.

If micro-housing endures ridicule, it will be rejected by many residents of the state, and that would be a lost opportunity for affordable housing.

Take housing, which is the greatest single expense for many households. There is a shortage of housing that working people can afford. There are many possible solutions that have worked elsewhere, including rent control, but that are not currently on the table here.

What is on the table is placing more people in less space in urban and some suburban areas. The logic is pretty simple: If people can’t afford housing, less living space is usually cheaper. In other words, use less land per person to bring down costs for renters and make home-buying accessible to more of the middle class.

This is where proposals to facilitate the construction of affordable small homes, including through innovative concepts for pre-fab and shipping container homes, come into play.

Small homes have become trendy, particularly among the millennial generation, and for good reason. A remarkable 93 percent of renters age 18-34 want to own their own home, according to data from the real estate site Trulia.

Despite that, people age 25-34 are becoming less likely to own. In 2005, 52 percent were renters; by 2013 60 percent of that same age group were, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Tiny, moveable home

If microhousing, like this Tumbleweed Tiny Homes lodging in California, is to succeed, it may be thanks to young adults who make the lifestyle seem cool.

Flickr: Nicolas Bullosa

Millennials are also living with their parents longer, putting off marriage and delaying having children. So they are more likely to be in a position to live solo or as a couple in a tiny home. The median age for a couple on its wedding day in 1973 was 23; today it is 30, according to Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research.

And in 1981, 43 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 31 were married and living in their own place. In 2012, just 23 percent were doing that, according to the Pew Research Center Current Population Survey.

The question, as millennials look forward, is how can they ever afford to purchase their own home. The answer may involve saving money on other big-ticket expenses, hoping that salaries eventually increase, and a lot of creativity.

Popular tiny-home culture is all about creativity, as viewers of the Tiny House Nation television show know. In that world, making things succeed often involves making them into a cultivated expression of uniqueness, as is clear from the Hobbit hole home of a family in Great Britain, or from this structure that looks like a pile of logs. The spirit is similar for this home that looks like a large cross and this thin 594-square-foot steeple house in Japan.

Hawaii may not want or need any of these types of construction, but it does need the spirit behind them. If experiments with shipping container homes and other forms of microhousing in Hawaii are to become popular enough to lessen the housing shortage, they must offer some form of self-expression. If the popular impression is that people are being crammed into soul-less little housing boxes, like some micro-hotels in Japan, they will fail.

The people behind such projects would do well to make sure they don’t look like prison cells without bars, cheap temp offices or sad quarters crammed with migrant workers. If micro-housing endures ridicule, it will be rejected by many residents of the state, and that would be a lost opportunity for affordable housing.

Such alternatives need to be done in an intriguing and appetizing way that suggests a forward-thinking lifestyle in sync with a changing world. Members of Gen M can be the perfect shepherds of this change because, as is clear from numerous statistics, they own less stuff, which makes it easier to consider living small. Since they also live with their parents longer, independence even in a small lodging outside the home might feel a whole lot better than being a 30-year-old full-time worker living with mom or dad. Finally, the selfie generation is very good at promoting its lifestyle through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on social media. The micro lifestyle will need selling.

If Hawaii does go small, and it seems likely given the various factors at play in the housing market, it will need to consider how micro-housing residents live differently. People will need to live like a growing number of urban millennials; be more efficient, have less stuff and socialize more away from home.

Gen M Mobility

Millennials are, famously, the dematerialized generation. Many of them know they don’t need to own records, CDs, DVDs or even MP3s, if they can stream media online and save money doing it. The situation is much the same when it comes to the computer programs and online digital storage space they use.

In those cases, as with others, this generation’s relationship to ownership involves a great transformation. It is often about access to products, not ownership of them.

The selfie generation is very good at promoting its lifestyle through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on social media. The micro lifestyle will need selling.

In a place, like Hawaii, where the middle class suffers from particularly high price pressures, there are many lessons.

This is particularly true of cars. Remarkably few millennials feel the same passion for car ownership that previous young generations did. Just 15 percent of young American adults say having a car is “extremely important” and another 25 percent said it was “important, but not a big priority,” according to a 2013 Goldman Sachs survey. The rest don’t want cars or don’t really care.

For many, the logic goes, it just isn’t worth the cost or the hassle. In a world where millennials and the rest of us can tap into ride-share and car-share services via a cell phone app (or a website, for old-school users), why fork out big dollars for a car, maintenance, insurance, gas, repairs and parking? And if you really need a car for one or several days, you can always just rent one.

The overall cost of transportation for someone living in a city with decent public transit and such millennial-friendly share offerings is almost certain to be far less than owning a car. The catch is that the transit and share systems need to be effective for it to make sense.

Oahu, in particular, could benefit greatly from such a shift because there would likely be fewer cars on the roads and parked across the island. A key argument for services like Zipcar around the world has been that they remove the need for many people to buy their own. If true, that should translate to fewer cars in traffic.

Gen M Shopping Lessons

Gen M has some things in common with hippies, who saved a lot of money by prioritizing living in the moment and trying to make wherever they were cooler when they could. But while hippies were idealistic and anti-materialistic, this generation is largely just playing the cards it was dealt.

Surveys show that millennials are less likely to derive a sense of status from owning brand-name products or luxury goods. In fact, brand names are less likely to drive purchases than social media interactions that help young people find the best fit for their needs at a good price. This is fortunate because fewer young people can really afford glam products, but again, there are lessons — or reminders — for people struggling to lower expenses in Hawaii.

Millennials are much more likely to leverage the technology embedded in their lives to shop smarter. Yes, they are more likely to shop online, but this applies at store location as well. As of 2012, 57 percent of millennials were already comparing prices through their hand-held media in stores, according to the Millennial Loyalty Survey. They use social media and Internet search to gather product information, examine reviews and engage in comparison shopping to increase their chances of being satisfied with their purchase and spending less.

This has transformed many purchasing processes, eliminating the long, laborious negotiation over the price of products that previous generations got used to. This has simplified negotiations over everything from new or used cars to electric guitars and even homes, since it is so easy to conveniently see what your home-owning neighbors paid for their place.

This young adult generation has grown up in an era of disruption, which has loosened its connection to many traditions. This has good and bad sides, but it is crucial to preparing for a world they are working to establish themselves in.

Also, since this generation has been most intimately connected to computers from so early in their lives, they intuitively know that offices are mobile. This means greater ease in avoiding big start-up expenses by working remotely from just about anywhere with reliable Internet access and phone reception.

And when such people need formal office space, as with cars, they can increasingly access time-share spaces by the hour or day.

Seen broadly, this young adult generation has grown up in an era of disruption, which has loosened its connection to many traditions. This has good and bad sides, but it is crucial to preparing for a world they are working to establish themselves in.

And Hawaii may pay the cost if it doesn’t learn from the millennial generation’s many examples.

Do you have a compelling story about the human impact of the cost of living, whether about you or someone you know? If you want to write it up, or tell it to me, please drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.

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