Are boomerang kids the “new normal” now?

I’ve blogged before about how the Great Recession and resulting high unemployment rates drove a significant number of young adults back into their childhood homes — or relying on Mom and Dad for financial support at least. It affected millions of young adults.

The economy and job prospects have been steadily improving since those dark days – even if the improvement hasn’t been as rapid as people would like to see …

But here’s an interesting finding: Those new jobs and the improving economy haven’t resulted in the kids moving back out of the house.

In fact, two studies conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016 have determined that “living with parents” is now the single most common living arrangement for America’s 18-34 year olds.

That is correct: Instead of living with a spouse, a partner, a roommate or on his or her own, the largest single segment of millennials lives full-time with parents.  The phenomenon is most prevalent in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, where it’s no coincidence that the cost of living is much higher than the national average.

For marketers, this means that the once-coveted 18-34 year-old cohort is today made up of many people who are consuming other people’s resources (e.g., the resources of their parents) rather than making all of their own purchase decisions and spending their own money.

Furthermore, Pew Research has determined that living with parents isn’t merely about employment (or the lack thereof). Over the past eight years, adults age 18-34 have continued to move back home in greater numbers — even as more of them have been able to find jobs.

The Pew findings suggest yet another surprising trend that appears to be in the making – that this is the first American generation where a large portion of the people won’t ever purchase a home.

It’s easy to figure that trends of this kind are transitory. But Pew cautions that the trends may well be more fundamental than the implications of an economic recession.  Instead, there are broader cultural dynamics at play – as well as the long-term challenges of economic independence for this generation of people.

The implications for marketers are intriguing, too.  For some, it will mean placing more emphasis on marketing initiatives aimed at parents, who are the now ones making purchase decisions within a larger multi-generational household — often one that stretches over three generations rather than just two.

And consider these dynamics as well: How do young adults and their parents work through multi-generational purchase decisions?  What are the most effective ways to target and reach multiple generations living under one roof who are making coordinated purchase decisions?  Maybe the old ideas of targeting each audience separately no longer make as much sense as before.

One thing’s for sure – it’s risky for marketers to wait for a return to normal … because that “normal” likely isn’t coming back.  Better to come up with new tactics and new messaging to reach and influence buyers in the new multi-generational environment.

The Sanders/Trump phenomenon: A view from outside the United States.

photo1This past Tuesday evening as I watched Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump vanquish their rivals handily in the New Hampshire presidential primary election, I received an e-mail from my brother, Nelson Nones, with his observations on “what it all means.”

As someone who has lived and worked outside the United States for years, Nelson’s views are often quite perceptive — perhaps because he is able to look at things from afar and can see the “landscape” better than those of us who are much closer to the action.

Call it a “forest versus trees” perspective.

And when it comes to the 2016 presidential election, it is Nelson’s view that the Sanders/Trump phenomenon is absolutely real and not something based on personality or celebrity — for good or for ill.

Shown below is what Nelson wrote to me.

… On the Underlying Dynamics

For context into what’s happening in the United States, the Pew Research Center’s recent report on the wealth gap in the United States is instructive.

In a nutshell, over the past 30 years Pew’s data points reveal: 

  • Upper-income families currently represent ~20% of the total, and their wealth (measured by median net worth) has doubled. 
  • Middle-income families represent 46% of the total. Their wealth barely changed (up 2%). 
  • Lower-income families therefore represent ~34% of the total, but their wealth fell 18%.

Now, after the end of the Cold War in 1992 until the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, the wealth of all three groups did rise, albeit by varying degrees: 

  • Upper-income by 112%
  • Middle-income by 68%
  • Lower-income by 30%

Here’s how they fared during the Great Recession (2007-10): 

  • Upper-income wealth declined by 17%
  • Middle-income wealth fell by 39%
  • Lower-income wealth fell by 42%

And after the Great Recession:

  • Upper-income families recovered 36% of their wealth lost during the Great Recession
  • Middle-income families recovered none
  • Lower-income families lost an additional 7% relative to their wealth in 2007

So, if we assume wealth to be a proxy for the feeling of well-being, then one could surmise that ~80% of American families feel like victims today — of which nearly half feel they are still being victimized.  

… On “Anger”

Are people feeling angry about this? You bet.   

Who are they going to blame? The other ~20% and foreigners, of course. 

Never mind the exculpatory hard data proffered by defenders of the nation’s elites revealing that big banks paid back all the bailout money they received during the Great Recession, or that bankers cannot be jailed for their alleged misdeeds unless and until proven guilty by jurors in courts of law (like anyone else), or that pharmaceutical companies’ margins on $45 billion of profit, at 12%, aren’t “quite” as obscene as they appear at first glance.   

None of those facts can ever restore wealth that’s been lost and never recovered, or is still falling. When you feel like a victim, such hard data are utterly and completely irrelevant.  

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are tapping into this anger with great success. As I watched both Sanders’s and Trump’s victory speeches, to vastly oversimplify, here is what I heard.  Sanders essentially said:

“It’s not fair that most Americans can’t get ahead or are falling behind. I’ll expropriate money from the rich by taxing Wall Street bankers and give it to you in the form of free tuition, student debt restructuring, lower healthcare costs and single-payer healthcare!” 

Trump essentially said:

“Political hacks are negotiating bad deals, letting China, Japan and Mexico take our money away from us every day. As the world’s greatest businessman, I’ll negotiate great deals fast to give you universal healthcare, and beat these countries so you get your money back – without having to share it with all those illegal immigrants!”

Photo2In my view, what both Sanders and Trump recognize is that ~80% of American families may have lost 40% of their wealth since 2007 with little or no hope of recovering it … but they haven’t lost any of their voting power.  

It makes no difference that the prescriptions offered by Sanders and Trump – squeezing money from Wall Street, China, Japan and Mexico, for example – are nonsense. As a lawyer I once knew always said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  To have any chance of accomplishing something useful (or not) as President, you have to win first.   

… On Populism being the Winning Ticket

In this election, under present circumstances, populism is a sure winner. 

The wealthiest ~20% of families (Democrats as well as Republicans) who represent the “establishment” in the eyes of the angry Sanders and Trump crowds, don’t quite smell the coffee yet.  

The angry crowds are out for money this election cycle, and I believe they hold enough votes to elect one of the two populist candidates (Sanders or Trump) who is promising “money.”   

… Not “experience,” “pragmatism,” “conservativism,” “liberalism,” “socialism,” “limited government,” “feminism,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “pro-LGBT,” “hope,” “change,” or whatever.  But money.

To protect as much of their wealth and status as they can, the elites have little choice but to scuttle their aspirational platitudes and learn to deal with it.

So there you have it — a view of the presidential election from the outside looking in. I think there’s food for thought here — and very possibly a look at where we’ll be in another nine months.

What do other readers think? Agree or disagree?  Please share your observations here.

Washington Mutual’s Big Gamble that Backfired

The Lost Bank, Washington Mutual's CollapseDo we need another book about bank failures? In the case of Seattle-based, Washington Mutual, I think so. After all, it represents the largest bank failure in U.S. history.

A new book has just been published about WaMu: The Lost Bank, by Kirsten Grind. Ms. Grind is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a former writer for the Washington State’s Puget Sound Business Journal. Having reported about WaMu for years, she brings a trove of knowledge and context to a story that goes well beyond the proceedings from Capitol Hill hearings.

In fact, one of the major reasons to read this book is the peek behind the curtain it provides … so that we can begin to understand “why” things happened, not just “what” happened.

Washington Mutual represents an ugly off-note in the oh-so-harmonious corporate world of Seattle — home to vaunted progressive organizations such as Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft. And for decades, the financial institution was just another regional banking entity, making safe loans and turning in a decent financial performance at the end of each year.

What happened?

The trajectory of WaMu’s brief, dramatic ascent into the stratosphere – and subsequent disastrous plunge – was set when the institution, no longer the closely held institution it had once been, gambled on growth by acquiring Long Beach Mortgage in 1999. Unlike WaMu, LBM was a leading participant in the sub-prime mortgage lending market, with a national presence.

Ms. Grind notes that some of the impetus for acquiring Long Beach Mortgage came from a desire to be in accord with Congressional aims to expand home mortgage lending to people who had traditionally not been able to participate in the housing market due to low incomes, poor credit, or a lack of credit history.

Herein begins yet another example of the old adage: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

And in fact, it wasn’t long before WaMu started expanding its loan offerings to include adjustable rate mortgages and other “innovations” designed to increase loans and commensurate deposits.

It was all too easy. Then the greed set in. As long as home values continued to climb, WaMu found it could continue to originate mortgage loans, collect fees, sell the loans, and continue to grow its lending business, deposits and earnings.

The bank set aggressive goals to become one of the nation’s top two or three mortgage lenders, even as it came to possess a 2,000+ branch network.

But by 2007, barely eight years after the run-up began, the bank’s own officers began to realize major problems with the sub-prime division, leading to its collapse barely a years later and the fire-sale takeover of its assets by J.P. Morgan.

The legacy of WaMu’s bad lending practices has been bedeviling J.P. Morgan ever since. After initially marking down WaMu’s portfolio of mortgage loans by some $31 billion, J.P. Morgan has had to set aside an additional ~$6 billion because of further deterioration of the portfolio.  The fallout from WaMu’s collapse will continue to reverberate in the coming years.

The Lost Bank is a good read even for people who aren’t well-versed in the financial side of business. Unlike other books I’ve encountered on banking topics that seem to be “long on tedium,” this one definitely keeps your interest from first page to last.

I find this book on par with two others that brought their corporate subjects to light in a similarly real way – and also well-worth reading:

  • Liars Poker by Michael Lewis (about Salomon Brothers and the Wall Street investment crisis of the late 1980s)

Feel free to share your own thoughts about these three books. Do you recommend them to others as well?