New alternative to McMansions: “post-recession houses”

A number of builders and architects have proposed alternatives to the McMansion but I recently ran into another term: “post-recession houses.” Here is a description of what such homes are about in Tennessee:

Powell expects houses in the Village section, which will range from 2,800 to 3,400 square feet, to appeal to young families and to older couples who are downsizing.

There, Woodridge Homes is building what company founder Lloyd Craig describes as the “post-recession house” with less square footage than the McMansions that were once popular but with high-quality finishes.

“The recession made all of us realize that more is not necessarily better. Bigger is not necessarily better,” said Craig.

Woodridge’s homes will feature open floor plans that combine the kitchen, dining and living spaces. They will also have walk-in storage, island “breakfast bars” in the kitchen, luxurious master baths and outdoor living spaces.

“People can buy a $375,000 house and have the same amenities as an $800,000 house,” he said.

The “bigger is not better” idea has been popular in recent years. However, two things work against this idea of a “post-recession house” in these new homes:

1. These homes are still larger than the average new American home which is around 2,500 square feet. So while these are not huge houses, they are still larger than normal. Families moving into these homes are still going to have plenty of space.

2. The homes are still going to be luxurious. While they won’t be as large as McMansions, they will still be well appointed. Again, people living in these houses are going to have plenty, though it will come in a smaller size.

To me, it sounds like the idea that these are “post-recession” means they will be slightly smaller and yet won’t skimp on the nicer features. The same critiques that are sometimes leveled at McMansions, that they are bigger than necessary and are about showing off wealth, could still be aimed at these new houses. (Plus, the homes are in a gated community with more expensive homes and nice features such as LED streetlights and a saltwater neighborhood pool.) Is this much of a change? Perhaps we could change the term for the homes to “less obvious McMansions”?

Sociologist: economic crisis leads to mistrust of the system

As the economic crisis drags on and Americans have lost a lot of wealth, one sociologist suggests the economic uncertainty leads to mistrust of the system:

“I don’t want to romanticize the past — it wasn’t perfect — but there was a sense of security, and that is gone,” said Thorne, a sociologist at Ohio University and an expert on bankruptcy and consumerism.

“We felt that if we played by the rules, that we would do all right. Now there is a feeling that you are never on solid ground, even if you do the right thing.”

Thus the biggest loss may go beyond the decline in the American family’s assets, she said: trust.

“Despite our most honest efforts, through all of our lifetimes, we worked our jobs, we played by the rules, and we still lost. That fosters fear and mistrust in the system.”

While the economic effects of a recession or slow recovery are well-known, I’ve been interested in commentators who have argued that there is much longer-lasting social and emotional impact. While Thorne is quick to not “romanticize the past,” there is some nostalgia here: American prosperity after the end of World War II was perhaps unprecedented in history. What happens if we never see this again, in the United States or elsewhere in the world? If this sort of prosperity and certainty doesn’t come back for a long time, how would people find a new level of trust in the American system?

Generation R(ecession)

This isn’t the first article or commentator to suggest that the current generation of roughly 20-somethings will be profoundly affected by the current economic malaise. But sociologist Maria Kafelas provides some insights into what she terms Generation R:

[Generation R] were born between 1980 and 1990. They’re the children of the baby boomers…

Working class kids said to us, “Listen, we’re going to be the first generation of Americans to do worse than our parents.” One young woman said, “I just feel burned. My friends who didn’t go to college, they don’t have debt and they’re making more an hour than I am.”…

[A working class girl who went to college] actually said, “I don’t even know why I spent the money.” The middle class kids were saying, “It’s very tough, I am filled with anxiety. I can’t sleep at night, but I still believe in a college degree. I’m just going to have to work harder and it’s going to take longer.” And those elite kids said, “Is there really a recession? It’s more like — it’s just harder for me to get a job.” And they’re sitting out this recession in a lot of ways…

They now talk a great deal about not wasting money; conspicuous consumption they say has gone out of fashion. And they don’t want to be seen as throwing money around when their families are eating into their resources to keep them afloat, etc.

If these characteristics do mark this current generation, their beliefs and practices would affect a number of institutions: higher education (and the education system in general), the economy (with more measured consumption practices), the relationship between generations (perhaps being the first generation in a while whose life is not markedly better), and perhaps more (government – for letting this all happen, financial institutions – for helping to make this happen, etc.).

But these comments from Kefalas also highlight the class differences that are exacerbated in these difficult economic times. For the elite, not a whole lot has changed. The middle class may still believe in college and the value of hard work. But it is the working and lower classes that might really have a lack of hope as the ways to move up, such as a college education, seem to be further out of reach.

Decrease in office romances

Businessweek suggests that office romances are on the decline because of a confluence of lawsuits and third party discrimination claims, which may be linked to pressures from the current recession. But there are those who argue that such romances are actually good for productivity and for businesses:

A once-amorous workforce already seems to be feeling the effects. This February, 75 percent of U.S. workers surveyed by job search website (MWW) believed a workplace relationship could bring a conflict. Sixty-two percent said they felt office romances were a distraction from job performance.’s annual Valentine’s Day romance poll has shown an alarming decline in reported office trysts. In 2006, 50 percent of respondents claimed to have partaken in a workplace relationship during their career. Earlier this year, the number dropped to 37 percent.

This is disturbing news not only for employees but also for their bosses. Some management experts believe that a workplace fling can “greatly increase something called ‘engagement,’ ” says Stephanie Losee, co-author of Office Mate, a guide to finding love in the workplace. “That’s when you’re excited to come in and work and you care about your company.” For these reasons, National Public Radio, Princeton Review (REVU), Pixar (DIS), and Southwest Airlines (LUV) encourage in-house matchmaking. Frederick S. Lane III, author of The Naked Employee, argues that co-worker couples spend more time at work, take fewer sick days, and are less likely to quit.

So if office romance is down due to economic pressures, are people now building romantic relationships elsewhere? Or are people just less likely to pursue romantic relationships when economic instability is present?

Additionally, I don’t envy managers who have to look out for and monitor such relationships. Such situations seem ripe for Michael Scott-type awkwardness.

From pavement to gravel

Due to the recession, some governments have decided to convert paved roads into gravel roads. This has drawn some media attention. Jack Shafer at Slate argues that everyone should just calm down a little:

But the long-term road trend—unacknowledged in the stories—is that local, state, and federal governments have been on a paving binge for the last 50 years. According to federal government statistics, the country had 1.23 million miles of paved road and 2.31 million miles of unpaved road in 1960. By 2008, that ratio had flipped—2.73 million miles of paved road versus 1.32 million miles of unpaved. In other words, in a half century the infrastructure gained 1.5 million miles of paved road.

Schafer argues that the actual number of roads being turned to gravel is very small and that there might be good reasons for doing so with certain roads.

h/t The Infrastructurist

Hotbed for exports is…Wichita?

The Financial Times reports that according to a Brookings Institution study, Wichita has the highest percentage of exports of any metropolitan region in the country:

Thanks to a cluster of aircraft manufacturers such as Learjet, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft, the economic focus of Wichita – population 366,000 – is very different from the emphasis on services and consumer demand typical of 21st century America. According to a study published late last month by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, nearly 28 per cent of the city’s gross metropolitan product is sold abroad. That makes it the most export-oriented in the country, just ahead of Portland, Oregon – noted for its computer and electronics companies – and San Jose in California’s Silicon Valley.

Wichita is not who I would think is leading this list. But the article goes on to say that Wichita and some other places have figured out how to move beyond two lagging sectors of the economy, consumer goods and housing, to move forward. For the rest of the country’s economy to move forward, they may have to follow Wichita’s model.

How to file 3 lawsuits an hour

The New York Times is reporting that the recession is causing a boom for some lawyers:

As millions of Americans have fallen behind on paying their bills, debt collection law firms have been clogging courtrooms with lawsuits seeking repayment.
Few have been as prolific as Cohen & Slamowitz, a Woodbury, N.Y., firm that has specialized in debt collection for nearly two decades. The firm has been filing roughly 80,000 lawsuits a year.
With just 14 lawyers on staff, that works out to more than 5,700 cases per lawyer.
While reporter Andrew Martin makes much of the shock value of the numbers and implies that there is no way such large-scale suing could be done responsibly, these numbers don’t strike me as inherently extreme.  While I am sure that abuse can and does happen in debt collection, consider the following:
  1. 5,700 cases per lawyer works out to just under 3 cases per billable hour (assuming a 2000-hour working year).
  2. Collecting a debt is not like proving that someone committed a crime.  It’s not like creditors have to prove to a jury that debtors owe money beyond a reasonable doubt.
  3. These lawyers are using automation software.
  4. These lawyers have a large support staff (who presumably handle most of the clerical work).