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  1. ITV Report

Are millennials getting smashed like an avocado? Maybe their parents are to blame

The controversial smashed avocado breakfast.

Does the humble avocado help explain why it's so hard for young people to get on the property ladder, find a job that rewards their qualifications or afford to explore different opportunities in life?

The fruit (yes, it’s classified as a fruit, not a vegetable) was famously used two years ago as a metaphor for wasteful spending among millennials.

It was Australian real estate millionaire Tim Gurner who advised the generation born between 1981 and 1997 they had to stop buying “smashed avocado” on toast and save if they wanted a house.

But author and journalist Joseph C. Sternberg wants to see the phrase re-evaluated in 2019.

For him, it’s the millennials getting “smashed like avocados” and he puts the blame squarely at their parents’ generation, who were born between 1946 and 1964 - the so-called post-war baby boomers.

“I thought the whole avocado thing is just a terrific window into this issue,” Mr Sternberg told ITV News.

Is it time to re-evaluate the avocado's role in the millennial home ownership debate?

“That just so perfectly encapsulates the tensions in the way baby boomers and millennials are talking past each other on these issues.”

Although Aussie businessman Gurner is still in his late 30s, his view is not uncommon to the (in terms of size, now dominant) generation in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

So what are the boomers missing?

Millennials at crisis point

For Mr Sternberg, also in his late 30s, his parent's generation fail to recognise that millennials are in an “economic crisis”.

He outlines his argument in a book, Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials' Economic Future, which focuses on the generational battle in the US.

But having lived in London for five years while working at the Wall Street Journal, he says the parallels are there with the UK.

Mr Sternberg identifies failures in education, job prospects and government spending but, above all, says housing is the biggest crisis point in the lives of millennials.

A study by Santander published on Wednesday found the aspiration for homeownership is under serious threat for "middle-income Britain, individual buyers and those unable to draw on family wealth".

Santander's study found young homeownership has plummeted amid increasing housing and deposit costs. Credit: Santander

The bank found the percentage of middle earners aged 25-34 who own their own home has plummeted from 65% in 1995-96 to just 27% in 2016.

Yet the aspiration remains high, with 51% listing 'owning their own home' as their top life goal.

The tipping point for homeowner struggle

Mr Sternberg told ITV News the 2008/9 financial crisis was the breaking point for millennials trying to get on the housing ladder in Britain.

“(Measures from the Bank of England) inflated the asset prices to the benefits of boomers at precisely the moment when millennials should have been buying into the property market," he said.

He believes the distortions of the Bank's monetary policy and a backlog in construction have worked against a generation of potential young homeowners.

“The housing market has gone completely haywire in the last decade.”

He says it means potential buyers have to work a decade or sometimes 15 years longer than their parents did to land a first home – to the benefit of the (baby boomer) landlord generation.

Work failing to reward education

And yet Mr Sternberg says the baby boomer drive for millennials to pursue higher education and get degrees has not been rewarded with as much opportunities in the workplace.

He said companies - run by boomers - and politicians should have done more to invest in future workers.

“You're asking 16 or 17-year-old kids to guess what kind of labour market (will be in the future),” he said.

Are workplaces and boardrooms still working against millennials?

“If these investments are so good, why aren't employers chipping in for more investment? Why is it that employers aren't offering some form of educational reimbursement?”

Mr Sternberg again points to changes after the 2008 crisis which made it more expensive to permanently employ the 17 million millennials in the UK.

Many companies instead hire casual or freelance staff on more expensive but shorter-term contracts or are being incentivised to run off temporary staff in the gig economy.

“Why is it a company like Uber is being rewarded for vigorous efforts at avoiding full time employees?” he asks.

Uber has expanded its business model built on casual workers.

Mr Sternberg says increased demands of public spending to help the ageing population has also hindered millennials already weighed down by dramatically increased levels of student debt.

Time to reform public spending?

Despite being a free market economist traditionally in favour of a small state, he criticises the austerity policies of the Conservative-led governments as a “blunt mathematical cutting exercise” which missed the opportunity to reform areas of spending.

He believes a debate is needed on how the NHS and pensions are protected and funded.

But is the changing demand of caring and protecting society really the fault of baby boomers?

“In the US and UK certainly the boomers didn't create the specific phenomena. Boomers didn't create national health service or pension system, they inherited them,” he recognises.

Joseph C Sternberg says the generation of millennials are now older than most people realise.

“But they've also been very resistant to reforming them over time. I think it's fair to blame them for that.”

What about parents who say at an individual level they try to help, but what can they do?

The boomer backlash

He says the most common reaction of boomers is to say “I help out my millennial children financially” with money for education or help with saving for a house deposit.

“That is great for kids who come from middle class moneyed backgrounds,” says Mr Sternberg. “That doesn't create opportunity for people from modest backgrounds.”

“You have all these young people flocking to urban centres for skills and education. And then there isn't housing.

“The incumbent homeowners don't feel a great sense of urgency to open up zoning or permitting processes.

"Then – to add insult to injury – they say 'what it wrong with you? Why do millennials chose to live where property is so high?'

“The reason we're living in those cities is that's where the job opportunities are.”

So are millennials doomed or can they change their lot?

Who's looking to change the conversation?

“I'm a perennial optimist. I don't want to write off millennials,” he says - and calls out a lazy assumption on the maturity of the generation.

“Millennials are no longer children. We're older than people think we are. Millennials are older than we ourselves think we are. We're being elected to office.”

He points out new Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson – born February 1980 – is a few months too old to count as a pure millennial but is still representative of a new wave of decision makers.

New Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson is (almost) representative of a new wave of prominent millennials in politics. Credit: PA

“As we get elected, take leadership roles in business and the media we need to take ownership of these problems.”

Mr Sternberg recognises the thrust of political arguments for change among millennials is dominated by the political left, of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his native US.

Mr Sternberg, who is politically to the right, reckons their “appealing sounding” arguments don't add up and puts his faith in the market to make the difference.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as a dominant voice calling for change in US politics. Credit: AP

But he is keen to emphasise he doesn't have all the answers, or offer a “four-point list telling people what to do” in his analysis.

“Most policymakers around the world agree no one knows how to solve these problems,” he adds.

What he wants is a debate.

A starting point is getting boomers and millennials to talk more - and agree change is needed.

“Millennials have been aware of these problems out there. With boomers there's still a strong sense of denial about these problems," he says.

Why smash it at all? The variety of sliced avocado on toast.

“I think you have to convince the boomers that there's a problem that needs solving, that they'll need to help the millennials to solve.”

At the heart of it, he says, is social solidarity.

“The young owe to the old. We shouldn't push grandma off the cliff or require our pensioners to live in the fields so we can afford to live in the city.

“But there should be solidarity from the old flowing to the young as well.”

Whether that's over an avocado breakfast or not, he doesn't mind.