In a certain type of women’s-magazine story—a.k.a. the “Aging Is Cool!” feature—readers are urged to celebrate their advancing age by shuddering at the ignorance of youth. “I would never go back to my twenties,” a wrinkle-free celeb avows. “I didn’t know who I was.” Indeed, few under-thirties are personally or professionally settled, and most have a tenuous grip on that ultimate American obsession: real estate.
A young adult’s relationship with housing is singularly painful. From that first crummy garden-level apartments to the never-ending parade of Craigslist roommates, a twentysomething’s home woes are perpetually tinged with status anxiety. Until recently, owning property legitimized us—buying a place was a benchmark of adulthood. Without that deed, we were left adrift, taunted by reminders that at our age, our parents were already on their second or third kid.
This was all further reinforced by the late-’90s housing boom and resulting condo-mania. So what if our relationships revolved around fragmented text messages, “cooking” entailed Thai leftovers, and our $160,000 educations seemed wasted on administrative jobs—we were homeowners! (Or if, like me, you weren’t, the mental calculus became excruciating: How did that guy, known for his 60-second keg-stand, manage to buy before I did?)
Historically, our country has always tied ownership to personal identity. (Don’t forget, the same people who wrote “All men are created equal” also made land possession a requirement for voting.) And, as of late, the message was still ringing loud and clear: “We can put light where there’s darkness…[by] working together to encourage folks to own their own home,” said former Homeowner-in-Chief George W. The flip side of this message, of course, is this: As a renter, you are unarrived; you are inessential; you are incapable of purchasing one of those carved wooden signs common to oppressively cute home boutiques that insist, “Home Is Where Your Story Begins.” You are a storyless transient, doomed to eat your Lean Cuisines over the sink.
Luckily for my psyche, the reality has shifted with the plunging economy. Suddenly, my friends who bought young are no longer the envy-inducing paragons of success. Instead, they are starting to resemble victims. Exhibit A: my college friend Beth.
After graduating in 2003, Beth had a great job, a good-natured boyfriend, and an apartment with four roommates. She’d always been an overachiever—and had a dad who harangued her about throwing money away on rent—so in 2006, at the age of 25, she bought a condo in a still-gentrifying neighborhood. But the commute was tough; she worked long hours and wasn’t comfortable walking down her street past 10 p.m. The building’s roof had problems. And so Beth sold at a stomach-turning loss in order to rent in a better neighborhood closer to work and friends.
The better part of me takes no pleasure in Beth’s pain. Had I been able to buy when she did, I’d be in the same grim situation. I consider myself lucky, especially as I stroll by the South End’s innumerable “For Sale” signs. That old feeling of being adrift, of being inessential, has morphed into a sense of being unencumbered. I don’t own, but I spend my days in a comfortable apartment in a charming neighborhood and never have to call the plumber. I’m not building equity, but I am (very, very) slowly building a respectable ING savings account.
And yet, I haven’t given up on the American Dream. I still assume that I’ll be a homeowner someday, mostly because I imagine it will offer me a megadose of the satisfaction I feel when baking a loaf of banana bread from scratch. For now, though, life is pretty good. My twenties, I think, will be remembered fondly.