As I approached my mid-thirties, I noticed that a particular sliver of my contemporaries had stopped pretending to be broke, or poor, and started brazenly trying to join the professional managerial class. I had stuck around in privileged industries—media, the arts—for long enough to see some emergent lines of division furrow deeper, and to glimpse the complicated inner lives of the wealthy and will-be wealthy.
In the clinical, learned language of white collar, six-figure professionals, many of my peers had graduated to sipping natural wine and discussing the woes of influential journalists, writers, gatekeepers, editors, media managers, executives, high-end administrators, government officials, policymakers, political advisers, and public servants.
A few years ago, a colleague had complained that she was the only person in a particular circle who had attended “a public school” (it was, in fact, one of the state’s top-ranked, most prestigious and well-resourced schools). Another friend, who insisted she “grew up in poverty” in “a suburb with migrants” was poached to be an executive at a major transnational media company. These were often the very same media types writing op-eds about the intrinsic and miserable precarity of millennial life.
They had subsidized their way through various internships, contracts and freelance gigs into the ever-shrinking pool of salaried employment via the casual living arrangements of upper middle class youth that signal unearned money: living with their parents well into their twenties; living cheaply or freely in their parents’ spare houses and investment properties; always having people to borrow money from; staying on the family cell phone plan. Wealth and class advantage had provided them with far more catapult power than hard work or the education system ever could.The Asset Economy presents hard new evidence for a disgusting truth: that wage labor is a scam.
Now, on social media, artists a few years younger than me were posting about the purchase of their “first home”—and neglecting to mention that their parents had supplied them with the down payment for their mortgage. When my peers talked of things like poverty, housing insecurity and family violence, it was with the flat authority and abstraction of a government report or nonprofit pamphlet—it was clear that these were theoretical social issues that happened “over there.” Their hobbies had changed too. Performed poverty was over; they were investing in restaurants, setting up fashion businesses based on “ethical” job creation in Africa, and joining art philanthropy circles.
I noticed another trend: several guilty millennials proudly refusing to accept early inheritances, which seemed to me just as privileged as accepting them. For some, there was a strange melancholy attached to the knowledge of a forthcoming inheritance. They knew, after all, that their windfalls were coming eventually, and that they could afford exorbitant rents in the meantime. I could barely imagine a poor or working class person turning down the chance to buy a heavily subsidized house. On the other side of the class divide, I saw friends without family money struggle to break the endless chain of casual academic contracts and twelve-month leases.
During this time, I was with my sister at an inner city pub, surrounded by her friends who worked at a local art museum. She leaned toward me, looked around and said quietly, “You realize that in this group, everyone’s parents own at least one house? And we’re the only ones whose parents don’t own property?” It felt like a conspiracy dawning in a bad 90s film. In realizing my own naivety, and that our lives were different, I was shattered. A thought hit: were my peers future-rich millennials?
The pandemic hit and I retreated in order to see better what was going to come next in the world and where I might fit into it. In the long, odd sleep of isolation, I began to consume wild amounts of film, digital art, media and books delivered by mail or stream. I found that my nascent observations were mirrored, almost perfectly, by the analysis set out by three Australian academics in a book that has radically changed my attitude to work and wealth, The Asset Economy: Property Ownership and the New Logic of Inequality (Polity, 2020).
By Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings, The Asset Economy is an academic study of political-economy and sociological analysis that reads like a horror story. At the study’s heart is a question central to many of the cultural and generational battles of the present: Who is more advantaged today? A millennial set to inherit their parents’ four-bedroom property in ten years? Or a renting baby boomer approaching the tail of their retirement funds?
Combining generational and class analysis, the authors bust open the old lie that jobs, education and hard work still provide social mobility. Nor will merit or exceptionalism get you anywhere except a life in the rental market. Rather, only your inheritance and your ability to invest in assets that appreciate faster than wage rises will assure you a sound financial future. Not so disenfranchised, and living far outside the common narrative of hard-knock precarity, the world’s future landlords, multinational business owners, CEOs and media executives—a small but fiscally significant slice of the under-40 demographic—are already benefiting from life-boosting cash infusions from their parents.
The great wealth transfer of around $30 trillion dollars has already begun for geriatric millennials, and will soon spread to the younger slice of the cohort. Banks are already preparing for this demographic-shifting moment. Meanwhile, the contract between the state, capital, and unions has evaporated and incomes have atrophied. If the politics of austerity are anything to go by, the welfare state could be a historically fleeting phenomenon.
In “Toward a Labor Theory of Generation X,” Alissa G. Karl writes that “Gen X didn’t just get gloomy in the 90s. We also got jobs.” Wage labor has declined since then. Finance and speculation and property investment reign, and joining the investor class (and becoming a landlord) is the new path. There’ll be millennials who never get jobs. And let’s face it, jumping from contract to contract in the wake of organized labor’s decline isn’t looking like a great recipe for radicalism. But the less-narrativized story is that the top tier of millennials is about to get seriously rich, and that inequality manifests in a serious and structural manner within the millennial generation.
While the “boomers versus millennials” culture war can lean on cliché and false generalization, The Asset Economy shows that generational analysis matters insomuch as age affects asset ownership and financial status. Millennials are the first to live through an era in which asset ownership matters more than income and job mobility. A key difference between the 1970s—when austerity dawned and boomers began buying houses—and now, is that neoliberal policies began in a setting when property ownership was democratized, and depended on that reality. People could bear those policies because they, or someone in their family, were much more likely to have a house they owned. Housing ownership, as I was learning in real time, is key to this new phase of economic inequality.
“Not only does housing wealth beget housing wealth,” write Adkins et al, “progressively narrowing the pool of those able to enter the housing market, it also increasingly determines one’s future educational opportunities and hence one’s future earning potential and professional status.” We are spiraling. In Australia, where I live, this means that parental contributions to first home loans average “more than $89,000, an increase of nearly 20 percent in the past 12 months. It’s this private access to wealth that I had been witnessing for the past five years among my peers.
What fascinates me is that the authors of The Asset Economy are not talking about what anthropologist Dave Graeber called the 1 percent—the Trumps and the Murdochs, the very, very rich. What about the, say 19 percent of Americans in the upper-class income tier, who will defend their right to be landlords, to increase their unearned wealth through their investments? It’s been long observed, in the UK and US, that house ownership skews a person’s politics toward conservatism.
In Western society, you are what you own. It used to be that the only way to acquire property without labor was to marry; the plots of entire genres of literature were structured around this principle. Now, The Asset Economy presents hard new evidence for a disgusting truth: that wage labor is a scam. It matters, I’ve realized, because the rich really do run the world.
Naturally, new markets have sprung up to service those benefiting from the next wave of intergenerational wealth. Alongside the various high-end tech, leisure, skincare and fashion items for millenials’ conspicuous consumption is the virtue-driven boom in natural wine, which several of my peers had taken to buying in cases of six for $180.
Made without the use of chemicals or GMOs, natural wine uses only natural fertilizers such as compost tea and manure. Ingredients additional to the grapes themselves, like yeast, must also be free of herbicides and other chemicals, while excessive additives like sulphites are limited. The natural wine universe keeps on expanding. Organic wine consumption has doubled in the five years from 2012 to 2017, with millennials fuelling the surge. The market was first identified in the Anglophone press in 2001; by 2005 a natural wine bar surge had emerged in Paris. The trend is now in full swing worldwide, and in my area, you can order a “natty” at most good small bars and many larger establishments.
There are environmental benefits for consumers and producers: farmland is inevitably healthier than water and soil depleted by toxins, and the quality of the wine is arguably better, too, with possibly fewer hangovers. But the benefits are more than ecological and healthful. Natural wine is seen and sold as unconventional, like the people who drink it. The market attracts vegans, the health conscious, wine connoisseurs and those seeking authenticity in their consumables.
In my social circle, I see something beyond an ethical posture: natural wine as an aesthetic marker of millennials aging stylishly into mid life—becoming the cooler 30-somethings who go to the wine regions for weekends away as they grow into the next social scene. Far from the tradition of stuffy, white-linen-tablecloth establishments, the product—and the way that it’s marketed—summons visions of almost-rich kids pioneering a subculture and living in a way that’s connected to the land, but fueled by dad’s share and property money.
The greatest irony of this burgeoning market is that wine was inherently natural until the advent of mass industrialization and chemical agriculture. And yet today, the privilege of natural wine means that nothing at my biggest local liquor store is under $22. Not the most onerous price tag for the consumption of vogue-ish virtue. But which demographic is buying alcohol at premium prices? Who is it that thinks, “that’s a good deal”? Well, those who are fixed on trends, who have a lot of disposable income, and are a particular type of millennial—according to University of Palermo researchers and American, Chinese, UK, Australian and New Zealand trade presses.
Natural wine now stands as a signifier of tasteful, cool, knowledgeable consumerism. It is a delicious, differentiated product in a market of poisonous sludge. Its flavor is often referred to as alive and funky, notwithstanding the fact that alcohol is inherently funky, constituted as it is by fermented fruit sugars. Is the creation of this new, delineated market of on-trend wine not an absurd indication of our disconnect from traditional modes of living with and eating plants? Or should there be a “toxic industrial beverages” section, demarcated in liquor stores?
As the growth limits of free-market economies are approached, the logic of late-stage capitalism dictates that new markets must be identified and aggressively pursued. With natural wine, a win-win situation emerges. The drinkers get the social capital, and the liquor industry gets the actual capital. The natural ethos of the peasant counterculture is commodified by business culture and sold back to cashed-up consumers who are on the brink of losing their youth. Little wonder that the natural wine market will be worth an estimated US$30 billion by 2030. Such is the empty deliciousness of natural wine, the bereftness and arbitrariness of popular culture, and the wide open nature of the emergent ways to make money out of future-rich millennials.
At this point, I must, in the interests of transparency, make a disclosure along the lines of what critic Amanda Hess calls the “obligatory paragraph.” I have, for all intents and purposes, married a future-rich millennial.
He was born onto the land in a settler-colonial colony. He now manages his family’s regenerative farm. Access to that land shapes his life; he is bound to be an inheritor. By some fluke of character, some mystery of personality, he is not caught up in the contemporary trap, all too common in the everything-is-problematic discourse of the moment, of performing hardship. He is not hell bent on cosplaying disadvantage. He is not bewitched by the self-rationalizing delusion that the privileged are other people, elsewhere. He knows he has won capitalism’s life lottery.
Of course, I’m completely biased, but Sam is an angel of chill and empathy. At first I thought, “maybe he can afford to be”—he’s descended from landowners. But it’s rather unusual for people to admit that their fortunes in life are structural, brought to them not by hard work or talent alone, but by inheritance. Such is the usual denialist psychology of the privileged.
Here’s the new contradiction of my life: my accidental escape from the gig economy and the welfare class has not arrived on account of social justice or political change. Marrying up should not be the sole way to stabilize your life. This is no way to create a fair society. I exist in a cross-class relationship, with all the cultural differences and chasms in worldview that come with it. Sam’s view of life is that it is full of wonder and awe and beauty; you picture your future, and that idealized picture materializes. My view of life is that it is chaos, and you flow with the mercy and whims of it while maintaining a modicum of dignity and self-determination.
Much of my life has been spent living on willpower and adrenaline; periods of sleepless suspension, in unstable work and strange accommodations. Now, in partnering upwards, my Faustian bargain involves some genuine asymmetries. I haven’t chosen, for example, where we live, and I have adopted his way of life. I have to avoid the female trope of being financially dependent on my male spouse. My future is contingent on his fortunes. But living rent-free in my in-laws’ second residence has been transformative, and I’m set to be a sideways beneficiary of the asset economy.
For many, the dominant lens to understand life in this society is identity, which can to an extent be a political category. But what if the question isn’t who are you, but what socioeconomic structures contain who you are? In posing these new questions, the authors of The Asset Economy restage the current generational warfare as class conflict. Our lives result from the historical forces that form us. I think I’m beginning to understand a little more about how this society works.