Home rentership is on the rise
"The Great Gatsby," the pre-eminent American novel of financial ambition, overextension and downfall, offers a revealing vignette about the great American obsession: real estate. The narrator, Nick Carraway, can't afford to buy in the rarefied Long Island world inhabited by Gatsby, and by Tom and Daisy Buchanan. But he can afford to rent. "When a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a commuting town, it sounded like a great idea. He found the house, a weather-beaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month, but at the last minute the firm ordered him to Washington, and I went out to the country alone," he notes. "I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor's lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month."
In the American mind, renting has long symbolized striving—striving, that is, well short of achieving. But as we climb our way out of the Great Recession, it seems something has changed. Americans are getting over the idea of owning the American dream; increasingly, they're OK with renting it. Homeownership is on the decline, and home rentership is on the rise. But the trend isn't limited to the housing market. Across the board—for goods ranging from cars to books to clothes—Americans are increasingly acclimating to the idea of giving up the stability of being an owner for the flexibility of being a renter. This may sound like a decline in living standards. But the new realities of our increasingly mobile economy make it more likely that this transition from an Ownership Society to what might be called a Rentership Society, far from being a drag, will unleash a wave of economic efficiency that could fuel the next boom.