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Another crisis you haven’t heard of…

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We don’t like to talk about it; but “peak death” is looming in the UK.  More children were born in 1947 than any year before or since.  And so, with a life expectancy of 87 – at least prior to the pandemic – we can expect more people to curl up their toes in 2034.  In theory, that is a good thing because it will finally bring an end to the housing crisis.  Somewhere between a third and a half a million houses could become vacant in 2034 alone.  And, of course, tens of thousands will be becoming vacant in each of the years either side.  The Millennials – who currently spend 14 times more on housing than the boomers did in their 30s – need only hang on for another decade or so and they will witness the biggest drop in house prices in modern history.

Not so fast!  While a few boomers will go to their graves intestate, the majority will be passing their properties on to children or grandchildren.  As Peter Franklin at UnHerd explains:

“By the Peak Death year of 2034, today’s twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings, will be in their forties and fifties – quite possibly too old to get a conventional mortgage, if they’re first time buyers. Furthermore, while the passing of the Baby Boomers may increase supply to the housing market, we shouldn’t bet on reduced demand. In a globalised economy the British property market is an attractive destination for surplus capital.

“Also, the Baby Boomers won’t just be vacating their property upon departure, but bequeathing it to their inheritors… The real challenge is to stop the capital flows of ‘Peak Inheritance’ from finding their way back into the housing market – and especially not into buy-to-let investments.”

While there are a multitude of media stories about the houses owned by the baby boom generation, however, a less observed but more difficult crisis concerns the content of those properties.  Robyn A. Friedman at the Wall Street Journal is one of the few to begin to consider the problem:

“As baby boomers age, many are planning to downsize into smaller homes. But preparing to live in a smaller space brings up a challenge: how to get rid of all the stuff you’ve accumulated through the years.

“Whether it’s vintage furniture, antiques, collectibles or couture fashions, knowing where to sell it—and how—is key to maximizing your return on investment. That applies whether you’re a homeowner selling possessions or an estate administrator handling the sale of personal effects after the death of a family member or friend.”

While Friedman’s piece has a comely middle class feel to it, however, a large part of the baby boomer generation is property-rich but income poor.  Moreover, most of their property would be more accurately described as junk rather than collectibles.  As Lisa Schmeiser at the Observer wrote a couple of years ago:

“For the past few years, there’s at least one article a year wherein downsizing baby boomers are shocked (shocked!) that their children and grandchildren do not want their generously-offered possessions…

“So why are people rejecting brown furniture and full sets of china en masse? There are a few reasons beyond ‘I can’t stand mahogany furniture finishes.’

“More young adults live in smaller places, they rent rather than own, and they may share their dwelling with roommates rather than a partner and children.

“Shifts in how families spend their time (see: the rise of two-career households over the past 40 years) means that entertaining has shifted substantially, and there’s a distinct lack of leisure time.

“Finally, more young adults are used to collecting digital assets, not physical ones; this may be related to the relatively recent shift toward experience as a consumer good and the attendant bonus of curating one’s social media feed to show one’s experiences.”

What this adds up to is an additional time dimension to the current concerns about our “throwaway culture.”

We already have a problem dealing with unwanted junk; most obviously in the shape of plastic waste despoiling the environment.  Until recently we could salve our consciences by dutifully recycling our junk in the mistaken belief that someone was repurposing it.  But since China stopped acting as the western world’s refuse dump, the problem on junk has come home to roost.  For the densely packed states of Western Europe in particular, the problem is one of space.  There are simply not enough holes in the ground to bury all of the rubbish.  At least the plastic waste can be burned – after all, it is a derivative of oil.  And burning it here is – slightly – better for the planet than shipping it somewhere else to be burned.  In time someone may even come up with a viable means of capturing the gases produced in the process.

In the UK, the official approach to the problem has been to introduce a quasi-supply and demand mechanism; charging non-domestic users for access to the remaining landfill facilities.  The idea being that more expensive recycling alternatives will become viable is the cost of dumping rises high enough.  Like so much else that governments do, it hasn’t worked out that way.  In an increasingly less prosperous economy, households seeking to keep costs down are – whether knowingly or unknowingly – turning to fly-tippers to dispose of their junk.  The consequences are that large swathes of rural Britain are the recipients of unwanted waste.

This though, is largely our collective immediate waste stream.  We don’t buy things solely to throw them away; we want to consume them first.  And while some waste – such as food packaging – is generated in short order, most of it lasts for years and even decades.  As peak death approaches, so a greater volume of this longer-term junk is going to be making its way, in far greater volumes, to a fly-tipping site near you, as inheritors seek the cheapest way of disposing of the waste in order to sell or rent out the empty houses.

One potential means of mitigating the problem may emerge out of the inevitable economic downturn resulting from the energy and resource shortages accelerated by the pandemic.  With oil slowly but surely climbing toward economy-crushing prices last seen during the post-2008 depression, the post-pandemic world is going to be far more materially poor even than the years immediately before.  And while we are too polite to say it publicly, far more of us are going to be prepared to pay for refurbished second-hand goods.

Sites like E-bay were designed to provide a market for second hand consumer goods.  Amazon has a large branch of its website dedicated to selling refurbished goods.  The supermarket Asda, has announced that it is to begin selling what it euphemistically describes as “Preloved Vintage” clothing.  But these outlets are only in the market for the best quality used goods.  The contents of hundreds of thousands of baby boomer houses are unlikely to meet their requirements.  Rather, we are looking at that part of the market traditionally met by pawn shops and second hand stores… although even these may struggle with the volume of junk, and will probably reject most of it.

Some extension of the community tool libraries might absorb some of the unwanted waste; particularly if the model is expanded to refurbishing furniture, household appliances and white goods.  But such initiatives require both foresight and investment before the crisis arrives – qualities that governments, local and national, tend to be devoid of. 

And so the most likely outcome to an entirely foreseeable crisis if that between now and 2034 we will see a massive increase in illegal dumping, which public authorities will not be able to afford to prevent or police, and which will prompt public officials to wring their hands and make the well-worn claim that “nobody could have seen it coming.”

As you made it to the end…

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