Posted on

We Tested Instagram Reels, the TikTok Clone. What a Dud.

Millions of people have used the social media app TikTok to make and share short, fun, entertaining videos. I, Brian Chen, am not one of them.

Count me as one of those never-TikTokers. As an older millennial, I have exclusively used Facebook’s Instagram to post photos of my dog. I have never made a 15-second dance video.

But that all changed last week. That was when Facebook released a TikTok copycat called Reels, which is part of Instagram. Its introduction suddenly made making short videos a lot more interesting.

Facebook’s timing was brilliant. That’s because TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, has been under major pressure from President Trump. He has identified TikTok as a national security threat and threatened to ban the app from the United States, prompting numerous panicked TikTokers to look for alternatives.

So here was an opportunity to test Reels and compare it with TikTok. I invited Taylor Lorenz, our internet culture writer and resident TikTok expert, to share her thoughts about how Facebook’s clone worked versus the real thing. With her experience and my novice knowledge, we could assess how both the never-TikTokers and the TikTok die-hards might feel about Reels.

The verdict? For her, it was: Not good. For me, it was: Confused.

Let’s start with what was copied. Both TikTok, a stand-alone app, and Reels, a feature inside Instagram, are free to use. With Reels, Instagram mimicked TikTok’s signature ability to create short video montages, which are overlaid with copyrighted music and embellished with effects like emojis and sped-up motion.

The similarities pretty much ended there — and not in a positive way for Instagram.

On Instagram, the videos are published to a feed known as the Explore tab, a mishmash of photos, sponsored posts and long-form videos. On TikTok, videos are surfaced through For You, a feed algorithmically tailored to show clips that suit your interests. Reels also lacks TikTok’s editing features, like song recommendations and automatic clip trimming, that use artificial intelligence to speed up the process of video creation.

Taylor and I each tested Reels for five days and then talked about what we had found. We didn’t hold back.

TAYLOR I can definitively say Reels is the worst feature I’ve ever used.

BRIAN Please elaborate. As a never-TikToker, I feel that it’s probably the worst Instagram feature I’ve used, too, but your feelings seem stronger than mine.

TAYLOR It’s horrible. Not only does Reels fail in every way as a TikTok clone, but it’s confusing, frustrating and impossible to navigate. It’s like Instagram took all the current functionality on Stories (a tool to publish montages of photos and videos with added filters, text and music clips), and jammed them into a separate, new complicated interface for no reason.

To me, it’s really unclear whom this feature is for.

BRIAN Let’s walk through how to use Reels.

To open the feature, you tap the Explore button (the magnifying glass) and open someone else’s reel before hitting the camera button to start creating your own reel.

So I have to watch someone else’s video before creating my own? This is a waste of time, battery life and cell data.

TAYLOR You can also create a reel by swiping right in Instagram to enter the camera and then selecting Reels, a button next to Story. Which is confusing.

BRIAN It’s totally undiscoverable without reading instructions. But OK, you find the button to create a reel. Then you can start recording videos or add videos you’ve already recorded. Then you can overlay music and some effects like emojis and color filters. Then you write a caption and publish.

How does this compare with TikTok?

TAYLOR TikTok is better in a million ways. The main one being that TikTok removes all of the friction that normally comes with trying to make a good video.

On TikTok, you can just grab a ton of videos (like, hit select on 17 different videos of all different lengths), and dump them all into the app and hit a button. TikTok will automatically select highlights from your videos and edit them in a way to match the beat of whatever sound you choose. This makes it so easy to create a really engaging, smooth video in under 10 seconds from a ton of footage.

Here’s an example of Reels versus TikTok of the same thing. You can see which is better!

Here’s the reel:

Video

And here’s the TikTok video:

Video

Oh, wait, did Reels save without sound?

BRIAN Yeah. Instagram said that there were restrictions and that they were working with third-party rights holders to expand its features. So when you save a video to your device after posting it, the music is automatically stripped away.

What you describe about TikTok just makes Reels sound so lacking. In Reels, you have to manually select where a music track starts to ensure it’s in sync with a clip. You’re saying TikTok automatically figures that out for you?

TAYLOR In TikTok, you have a feature called “sound sync,” which everyone uses. You upload a bunch of clips, and it will reorder and trim them to match whatever sound you choose. It also suggests the best songs for each video.

BRIAN Wow, really? That’s insane.

For music on Reels, I would hit the Audio button and just type in a word that came to mind to search for relevant songs. With this video of my corgi eating bread, I typed the word “hungry” to choose “Hungry Eyes.” Then I had to trim the clips and manually synchronize a portion of the song. That took me about 10 minutes.

Take a look:

Now take a look at an example of a failed reel that I never posted. I was trying to make a montage of dog butts being scratched. After adding the music, I was able to go back and trim the second clip to be in rhythm with the music, but couldn’t go backward to trim the first clip of scratching the Doberman’s butt.

Video

Why am I able to edit the second clip but not the first clip? Instagram said it was still early days and that they were working on the ability to edit earlier clips. (Early days, my butt! They’ve been working on Reels for over a year.)

TAYLOR TikTok makes it very easy to create really entertaining short videos and makes it easy for that content to go viral. Reels makes it hard to create entertaining short videos — and even if you post them, the best you can hope for is to get a little distribution on a very crowded Explore page.

A big part of why TikToks go viral is that they can be easily downloaded and shared across platforms (with credit baked in because they’re watermarked with the handle).

Also, Reels is missing the ability to “duet” content, as you can on TikTok. Duets allow users to create side-by-side reaction videos. This is a core way users communicate and riff off each other. It’s basically the TikTok version of a quote tweet.

Finally, Reels has no “friends only” option. On TikTok, I’m able to post a video only mutual friends can see. I just want an easy way to post to my friends only.

BRIAN Right. Currently the simplest way to do that on Reels is to set your profile to friends-only so that all your posts are viewable only to friends. Otherwise, if you share a reel privately with a friend through a direct message, it acts like a Story and disappears after 24 hours. Which is confusing.

How long would you say you spent on making a TikTok versus a reel?

TAYLOR With TikTok, I can post a fun video of my day in under 15 seconds. Reels took me about five minutes.

Some people do spend an enormous amount of time editing their TikToks and making these really complicated and amazing videos. But for me, just a casual user who uses TikTok to capture fun highlights from my day-to-day life, that’s the time frame.

BRIAN As an Instagram user, I see no benefit to using Reels as opposed to Stories for posting videos. It’s extremely confusing for even us to use, which means it’s going to be much more confusing for casual tech users.

I’ll add that my followers didn’t seem impressed with Reels. The reel of my corgi, Max, eating bread got about 250 likes, down from the 300 to 400 likes that he usually gets from regular Instagram photos.

Maybe I’ll post more Reels one day if Instagram catches up with TikTok. But until then, I think you’ve persuaded me to start a TikTok.

TAYLOR I can’t see myself creating a Reel again. I might use it as a repository to re-upload my TikToks. But over all it just doesn’t have any of the video-editing ability that I’ve come to expect.

It’s also hard to find and discover other Reels. Part of why it’s so easy to be creative on TikTok is that you’re presented daily with a series of trends, memes or challenges. It makes it easy to see what other people are doing and hop on it or riff off it. I just don’t see what Reels is good for.

BRIAN That’s some reel talk.

Posted on

The Grapelord of Napa Faces a Threat Worse Than Plague

One balmy winter afternoon, Andy Beckstoffer, a grape grower who has done more than nearly anyone to shape the premium U.S. wine industry, was sitting in Mustard’s, a restaurant in Napa Valley that is a kind of clubhouse for the vintner class. Although Beckstoffer Vineyards, the largest private grower in California, had recently set a sales record with a blockbuster harvest of $55 million worth of cabernet sauvignon, its founder was not in the mood to celebrate. The wine industry was in trouble, facing its worst outlook in generations — and that was before the coronavirus struck.

The litany of plagues was merciless: too many grapes, thanks to an epic haul in California and Washington. Too many wildfires and weird bugs unleashed by climate change. Too many new wineries in Napa, upsetting the balance of agriculture and hospitality. And then there were the millennials, or millenniums, as the 80-year-old Mr. Beckstoffer likes to call them.

The generation born between 1981 and 1996 has been blamed for killing everything from napkins to homeownership, and thanks to its passion for hard seltzer, liquid marijuana and other drinkable novelties, it’s been cast as the murder hornet of the wine industry as well. Mr. Beckstoffer finds their health-crazed rituals (Drynuary?) puzzling.

“Wine is plant-based,” he said, shaking his head and picking mirthlessly at a spinach and mushroom burger. “Why don’t the millenniums drink it?”

A few weeks later, Mr. Beckstoffer’s anxiety was borne out by the publication of Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report on the U.S. wine industry — probably the most influential analysis of its kind. For years, its author, Rob McMillan, has preached about the alarming convergence of two trends: higher and higher bottle prices at the premium end of the market, and millennial indifference. Some farmers and winemakers have brushed Mr. McMillan off, and this time, he amped up the urgency, writing plainly: “The issue of greatest concern for the wine business today is the lack of participation in the premium wine category by the large millennial generation.”

The people who make wine don’t just age grape juice, they ripen customers, too, helping them evolve from undergraduate jug-swillers into middle-aged buyers of prestige labels. That process, Mr. McMillan says, appears to have stalled. Even as their purchases of other luxury goods have increased, millennials have balked at high-priced cabernets, which combined with the coronavirus makes 2020 “the worst time since Prohibition for fine wine producers in the United States,” he said in an interview.

The home of fine American wine is Napa Valley, where few benefit more from high prices than Mr. Beckstoffer. The region has unquestionably the best terroir in the United States, and within it, the choicest land has his name on a billboard next to it. Starting in the 1980s, Mr. Beckstoffer began seeking out what he calls “the good stuff” — the vineyards with records of success going back a century or longer. He now owns six, including To Kalon, a plot in the center of the valley considered the crown jewel of American viticulture. For the privilege of squeezing Beckstoffer grapes, winemakers behind labels like Stag’s Leap, Schrader and Realm pay up to $25,000 per ton — more than five times the Napa average.

All of which is to say: If the $71 billion California wine industry topples, then Mr. Beckstoffer, who values his empire at $500 million, may have the farthest to fall.

Image
Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Most Napa farmers hold some of their grapes back from market, in order to press them into wine themselves. Not Mr. Beckstoffer, who sells every last orb of fruit he can.

“Andy’s different — he has no interest in making wine,” said Curtis Strohl, the general manager of B Cellars, a Napa winery. In fact, Mr. Beckstoffer finds the vinifying process a bore, and he doesn’t care about drinking great vintages himself. His rivals in Napa say he cares only about money. Mr. Beckstoffer says he cares about farmers and the land. But it seems clear that over the course of his 50-year career, as the valley transformed from a drowsy agricultural community into an inland yacht club, the two motivations have worked in concert.

Mr. Beckstoffer — a courtly native of Richmond, Va., who pronounces vineyard “vin-yuhd” and “wine” as if it had three syllables — readily concedes that what brought him to Napa was the chance to make a killing. In 1967, recently graduated from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, he was working for Heublein, an East Coast food and beverage conglomerate with products such as Smirnoff, Jose Cuervo and a pre-mixed tiki drink called Navy Grog.

The American palate was developing an appreciation for “quality wine.” That year, for the first time, more dry wine was sold than sweet. Mr. Beckstoffer helped Heublein acquire Inglenook, a cherished, family-owned winery that soon began pumping out “oceans of plonk,” as the novelist and wine critic Jay McInerney once wrote. Heublein also bought Beaulieu, where a similar transformation occurred.

“The arrogance,” Mr. Beckstoffer said. “We bought the two best wineries in the valley and screwed it up.” Though still in operation, neither has returned to glory. Looking back “makes your heart hurt,” he said.

Heublein’s bet swiftly turned sour. Spooked by labor issues, the company gave up on quality wine after a few years and started selling its Napa farmland — to Mr. Beckstoffer, who had resigned from the company and moved his family to the valley. By the 1980s, he had developed an ambitious agenda that would take decades to unfold.

Like Robert Mondavi and a few others, Mr. Beckstoffer came to believe that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lay dormant in Napa’s soil. For more than a century, the potential of the valley’s wine had been recognized even by Europeans. But the quality was uneven and financial acumen was lacking, and as Mr. Beckstoffer saw it, the chance to create an American equivalent of the First Growths of France was being squandered — like a great but unknown painter in need of a sharp-elbowed dealer.

“The farmers were good at farming, but bad businessmen,” Mr. Beckstoffer said. “You couldn’t make any money owning land and selling grapes.” He believed that the local wine would only reach its potential if it was strategically elevated into a luxury product — scarce, expensive, vigilantly branded — even if that meant leaving behind an Arcadian era centered on small family farms and affordability.

“In every agricultural area, there is a citizen hierarchy,” Mr. Beckstoffer said. “Here, winemakers are at the top, and farmers used to be at the bottom.” He once told an interviewer that his overriding goal was to give grape growers more clout.

With his Ivy League M.B.A. and corporate pedigree, Mr. Beckstoffer is not exactly a typical farmer. In the 1980s, when Napa was still oriented toward relatively humble varietals like zinfandel, an epidemic of phylloxera — a rapacious insect that feeds on the roots and leaves of grape vines — wiped out crops. Mr. Beckstoffer and others led the charge for a valley-wide replanting with the more glamorous cabernet, while introducing data analysis and other elements of industrial farming that magnified yields enormously.

He also wielded back-room political skills to outmaneuver opponents. Like any good luxury item, Napa land is in short supply — 300 square miles, most of it owned by a few families and corporations. The question of whether to farm it, preserve it or use it to attract tourists is never far from any conversation. In 1990, as wine drinkers were developing a voracious appetite for Napa cabs at seemingly any price, Mr. Beckstoffer was the driving force behind a landmark piece of legislation, the Winery Definition Ordinance, requiring any wine with the word “Napa” on it to be made from 75 percent local grapes.

The statute also limited what sort of social and commercial activities, such as weddings, could take place at wineries. A generation later, vintners still complain that the bill funneled business to its champion and crippled the rest of the valley.

Image

Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
Image

Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

As Mr. Beckstoffer became a land baron among land barons, he also regularly enraged the winemakers at the top of Napa society, whom he dismisses as “blenders” and “media stars.” One article from 1990 describes an incident at a country club, in which a winery owner realizes that she has been seated near him and asks to be moved. Another quotes a winemaker calling Mr. Beckstoffer “a real snake.”

Mr. Beckstoffer displays both articles on his website. “If you’re not making enemies,” he said, smiling innocently, “you’re just taking up space.”

For good measure, he has also stymied real estate developers. As one of the sightlier parts of Northern California, with its majestic oaks and gaudy colors, Napa has some of the highest real estate prices in America and some of its most expensive hotel rooms. But Mr. Beckstoffer has long sought to choke off the development of Napa as a “lifestyle resort.”

Chuck Wagner, the founder of Caymus Vineyards, a prominent Napa winery, is one of many proponents of building up the region — more wineries, more hotels, more tourists. “People want to experience the beauty of the valley,” he said. “Andy is against additional business.” He added, “A lot of people believe that Andy does things for personal financial gain.”

Mr. Beckstoffer insists he has higher principles, and despite his corporate sheen, when he talks about securing “agriculture in perpetuity” for Napa Valley, he has the unmistakable zeal of an ideological convert. The heritage vineyards he bought are now in trusts that cannot be developed or sold.

“You have to ask yourself, what do you want to leave for your children?” he told me. “Someday, some spouse of a grandchild of mine will want to build a hotel on one of our vineyards — and they will hate me, because they can’t.”

The Dr. Crane Vineyard is not what you think of when imagining world-class terroir. Wedged between a ready-mix concrete plant and a grade school, it is nevertheless one of Napa’s oldest vineyards, originally planted in the 1850s by George Belden Crane, the first grower to transplant European viticulture to Napa. Ignore the immediate surroundings — the drooping electrical wires and paved yards — and at the end of a winter day, with a pink sun falling behind the Mayacamas Mountains in the background, the rows of trellised vines look as picturesque as any #winecountry social media post.

“Look at the uniformity of the rocks!” Mr. Beckstoffer said, cupping one the size of an apple. Beckstoffer grapes are renowned for their consistency, the result of exacting and technology-driven farming, including heavy use of fertilizers. But most of what makes the heritage vineyards superlative is a mystery. “People say it’s the soil, or the climate,” Mr. Beckstoffer likes to say. “The truth is, we don’t know.”

As he drove away, he gestured with the back of his hand at the valley’s suburban sprawl — light, by California standards. “There are very few places in the world where agriculture is the long-term, highest economic value, best use of the land,” he said. Napa used to have many vineyards as exceptional as Dr. Crane, he said, but now “they have a big house on top of them.” Asked how long he intends to own the property, he said, “Forever. Even if disease wipes it out, it will be a field.”

When he talks of Napa farming, Mr. Beckstoffer speaks loftily, invoking paragons of American culture like skyscrapers and jazz. “You have to have a larger cause, something bigger than money,” he said. “This place is a national treasure. Napa Valley put American food and wine on the map.”

Mr. Beckstoffer’s holdings here total only about 1,000 acres, or roughly 2 percent of the valley’s planted area. But thanks to his near-stranglehold on prime vineyards like To Kalon and Dr. Crane, he can demand almost whatever price he wants for his product. Decades ago, he settled on a formula borrowed from Burgundy: For a ton of grapes, he would charge 100 times the price of a bottle made with them. In other words, if a bottle made from cabernet sauvignon grown at Dr. Crane retails for $150, the cost of buying the fruit equals $15,000 per ton.

He also requires winemakers to put his name on their labels — in effect, making them do his marketing for him. Some find it coercive, but Mr. Beckstoffer compares the arrangement to the “Intel Inside” logo found on Windows PCs.

“He’s in a position where he can do that,” said Tor Kenward, a winemaker who makes cabernets with Beckstoffer grapes, retailing for $200 to $300. “Some winemakers are uncomfortable with the terms, but most think it’s worth the price.” At B Cellars, Mr. Strohl’s wine cave features a shrine-like Beckstoffer Heritage Room. “I’ll pay the price because I know I’ll get consistently excellent grapes, and I can make stellar wine,” he said.

The price of Napa bottles has risen year after year to ever-more incomprehensible heights — $1,000 for cult brands such as Screaming Eagle and Colgin — creating a seemingly invincible aura of prestige. As Mr. Beckstoffer likes to say: “You put ‘Napa Valley’ on a toothpaste, you can sell it as a luxury product.”

The question is whether the category will continue to thrive as its most lucrative demographic, the baby boomers, ages out of its prime consumption years and a new cohort takes their place — or doesn’t.

Every year, Napa awaits the publication of Silicon Valley Bank’s “State of the U.S. Wine Industry” analysis. In an interview, Mr. McMillan said his increasingly vocal warnings of the millennial threat to the industry were finally being heard.

“Every piece of research shows they’re lagging,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t drink wine. There are just other choices. In the 1990s, there was incredible wage growth, but beer sucked. Now, guess what? Beer is good. And so are spirits.”

Mr. McMillan said he thought that in the short term, the coronavirus pandemic might benefit the premium wine industry, with data showing locked-down consumers “willing to spend up,” perhaps as they try to recreate the restaurant experience at home. But the larger picture is not encouraging. When national crises come, so does a sense that we are all going to be more serious, more responsible, and stop buying expensive bottles of cabernet. After Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, the luxury wine market took painful hits. In such times, people don’t stop drinking; they just buy less of the expensive stuff.

When I caught up with Mr. Beckstoffer again in March, by phone, he was sequestered at home. The pandemic had, if anything, helped him come to terms with his basket of concerns, putting them in perspective.

I asked him to compare the crisis to earlier troubles in his career of half a century. In the 1970s, to buy Heublein’s land, he went into debt, then saw the price of grapes crash, causing him to default on loans and go into forfeiture. As he was beginning to recover, phylloxera hit and many wineries went under. He saw it as an opportunity. “When hard times hit, people sold,” he said. “That’s when we bought a lot of our vineyards.”

He seemed sanguine about the Covid-19 economic crash. “In this business, we tend to get seven or eight good years, then two or three bad ones,” he said. In the mind of a farmer, plagues come and go.

The millenniums, however, still haunted him. “Millennials,” he corrected himself.

“We’ll figure it out,” he continued. “A well-managed business will always weather the storm. Nobody in Napa Valley is panicking. No land that’s really good is for sale that I’ve seen. If something comes up, I’ll probably buy it.”

Image

Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Read More

Posted on

My Retirement Plan Is You

Sian-Pierre Regis, 35, is used to living with roommates. For the past 10 years, he has split the rent on his apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan with two (in some cases, three) friends. But in June, he’s getting a co-tenant of a different sort: his 78-year-old mother, Rebecca Danigelis.

“I don’t think either of us expected to be in this situation,” said Mr. Regis, a freelance filmmaker. His mother worked for over 40 years as a hotel housekeeper, rising to a management position, until her job was abruptly eliminated three years ago.

Since then, she has lived off her slim retirement savings (she liquidated most of her 401(k) to pay Mr. Regis’s college tuition in 2002) and whatever part-time cleaning jobs she could find. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, she again was out of work, and at the end of May, the lease on her subsidized housing in Boston will expire. She can’t afford the rent.

“I don’t know what she could have done better, or how she could have prevented this,” Mr. Regis said. “She worked long hours, never called in sick and cleaned houses to make extra money when she wasn’t at her hotel job. She had no vices.”

Still, as a single parent raising two children, she struggled to save. “When she lost her job, she had $600 in her savings account,” he said. “She had nothing to fall back on.”

Nothing except her son, that is. Which makes Mr. Regis one of the growing number of millennials who are supporting their parents financially and, in some cases, giving them a place to live. Known as the reverse-boomerang effect, the phenomenon of parents moving in with their adult children, often for financial reasons, is on the rise. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of population data, 14 percent of adults living in someone else’s home in 2017 were a parent of the head of household, up from just 7 percent in 1995. And this trend is expected to balloon in the coming decades as baby boomers leave the work force but can’t afford to support themselves.

Expressed in starker terms, the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College has predicted that half of today’s workers will not have enough savings to sustain their standard of living when they retire. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, one in five Americans will be over the age of 65 by 2030 (compared with one in seven in 2017), “and our nation will face a severe shortage in accessible and affordable housing to meet their needs.”

Enter the resurgence of multigenerational housing, when adults from at least two generations share the same home. After declining to its lowest point in 1980, multigenerational housing is now close to its 1950 peak, representing 20 percent of the total American population in 2016, according to another Pew analysis.

While that trend is largely driven by 20-somethings living with their middle-aged parents, Pew researchers found that older adults were also significantly more likely to be living with their grown children in recent years than they were in the 1990s.

Younger Americans should take this pattern seriously, says Georgia Lee Hussey, a financial planner in Portland, Ore., who has clients across the country. “Most of my clients have at least one parent that needs to be factored into their financial plan,” she said. “What’s tricky is that for some families, it can be unexpected. Especially in white American culture, people over 60 are often uncomfortable talking about their finances, and ashamed to ask their children for help.”

And don’t underestimate the power of denial. Ms. Hussey noted that many baby boomers watched their own parents enjoy an era of heartier pension plans and lower health care costs. Now, many Americans work hard all their lives but still don’t have enough savings to retire. “Then, suddenly their child realizes, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to take care of dad,’” she said. “It can lead to some incredibly difficult conversations.”

Image
Credit…Winnie Au for The New York Times

For Dulcinea Myers-Newcomb, 45, that realization happened when her 80-year-old father came to visit her and her two children, ages 8 and 14, in Portland — and then never left. “He said, ‘So, I’m not really visiting. I live here now,’” she said. “I knew that my father did not ever plan for this phase in his life, but my husband and I were not prepared for him to move in as soon as he did.”

To make room for their new housemate, Ms. Myers-Newcomb, a real-estate agent, arranged to install what is known as an accessory dwelling unit — a secondary apartment built on a single-family residential lot — in their small backyard. But the price — about $110,000 — put the family in a tight spot. Like many Americans, she and her husband were already sandwiched between lingering student debt and trying to save for their own retirement. They took out a home equity line of credit to cover the costs, and her father contributes just under $1,000 a month to help with the bills.

“I hope my kids don’t have to do this for me someday, but I think it’s beautiful that our children see that we’re taking care of our elders,” Ms. Myers-Newcomb said. “I’m seeing it more and more in my work, too: people my age and younger taking in their parents.”

For other families, the topic was never taboo.

“My parents were pretty explicit that my siblings and I were their retirement plan,” said Ka Po Lam, a 28-year-old treasury analyst who works for a bank in New York City. His family moved to the United States when he was a young boy, and he started giving half his take-home pay to his father at age 15, when he got his first job at McDonald’s.

“Being from Hong Kong, it’s part of our culture to help the family,” he said. “As immigrants, both my parents worked manual labor jobs. They don’t get Social Security. The traditional ways to afford retirement aren’t really available to them.”

Mr. Lam now sends about $800 a month to his parents, who live with his older sister in Boston. “I’m basically paying double rent — mine and my parents’ — so I manage money pretty carefully,” he said. For a while, he had a second job at a coffee shop to earn extra cash on weekends — a different lifestyle from most of his banker colleagues’, but he’s not complaining. “It’s not something I hide,” he said. “As much of a burden as that can be, I find validation in the fact that I can provide for my family.”

Still, financial responsibility for aging parents can be daunting no matter how much planning you do, said Athena Valentine Lent, 34, a program manager for a nonprofit in Phoenix, Ariz. “I’m Latina, and multigenerational households are normal in our culture,” she said. “I always knew my dad would come to live with me someday, and I’ve worked hard to prepare, but it’s still not easy.”

Although her father is only 53, she expects that a combination of his health and financial issues will put him on her doorstep within the next five years. “I have a ‘dad fund,’ and I put a couple hundred dollars a month in it,” she said. “It affects a lot of my life decisions. If my partner and I decide to buy a house, it will have to be big enough for my dad to live there with us. It’s a lot to think about, especially since I’d like to have children of my own in the next couple of years.”

To make matters more complicated, her father takes care of his mother, Ms. Lent’s grandmother. “So I wouldn’t just be taking care of him. I would also take in my grandma, and possibly my aunt too, because she also lives with them,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t just inherit our parents — we inherit entire families.”

These early reverse-boomerang pioneers are laying important groundwork, said Rodney Harrell, the vice president of family, home, and community at the AARP. “As it becomes more normalized for older adults to live with their grown children, I think it will get easier for everybody,” he said. “If your neighbor builds an accessory dwelling unit, or has their parents living with them, you might realize it’s a viable option for you and your family, too.”

That’s certainly been the case for Mr. Regis. “At first, I felt really lost. My situation was foreign to my closest friends, the people I’d gone to college with,” he said. But when he made a documentary film about his mother’s experience, “Duty Free,” the response was huge. “When we released the trailer for the film, I heard from so many people, my own age and younger, who said, ‘Thank you for making this. My mom just moved in with me, too, and I would do anything for her.’”

He also sees a silver lining. “In our country, the elderly become invisible. We don’t see them, and we don’t feel like we need to help them,” he said. “But they have so much to give, and maybe, if they live in our homes with us, people will realize that more.”

Posted on

Young Adults, Burdened With Debt, Are Now Facing an Economic Crisis

The last time a serious economic downturn hit in 2008, Evan Schade was in high school and the crisis seemed like a news event that happened to other people. This time, as the coronavirus has brought the economy to its knees, it has become a personal affair.When nonessential businesses were …

Read More

Posted on

How Millennials Could Make the Fed’s Job Harder

WASHINGTON — “They say millennials are lazy,” billboards plastered across 15 major cities declared last summer. “Retire early and prove them right.”

That sentiment, reflected in ads for the investment manager Prudential, is the stuff of a 30-year-old’s fantasy — and the Federal Reserve’s nightmare.

A young generation of aggressive savers could leave central bankers with less room to cut interest rates, which they have long done to boost growth in times of economic trouble.

To leave the work force early, millennials would need to build up massive retirement funds and consume less in the process. That hit to demand could slow growth and force rates to drop ever lower to entice spending. And if today’s workers actually managed to retire young, it would exacerbate the situation by shrinking the labor force, further weighing on the economy’s potential.

Millennials, who are roughly between the ages of 24 and 39 and have not lived through pronounced price spikes, already have the lowest inflation expectations of any adult generation. Their belief that costs will not increase could eventually slow actual price gains by making it hard for businesses to charge more. The Fed’s main interest rate includes inflation, so that would leave it with even less room to cut.

It may not come to this. Millennials could become more worried about inflation as they age, giving companies more room to lift prices. Their difficult post-recession entry into the labor market means many are laden with student debt, so it’s unclear if they will be able to retire young. But many indicate that they want to leave the work force early — an ambition that economists say could spell macroeconomic trouble if realized.

“It would lower interest rates — that’s certainly true,” said Joseph Gagnon, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It would be a double whammy: It directly raises savings” and “it would further reduce the need to invest in factories and offices for these people.”

Interest rates have been falling for decades, and demographics are a major factor in that decline, economists say. Once people are past middle age, they are living longer without working correspondingly later in life, so they have been saving heavily to fund extended retirements.

Millennials, already accused of killing everything from paper napkins to mayonnaise, would happily exacerbate the drop in interest rates, which baby boomers have driven to date.

Of millennial workers with an active 401(k), 43 percent expect to retire before the age of 65, based on data from T. Rowe Price. For Generation X — often defined as those aged 40 to 55 — that figure is 35 percent. While the T. Rowe Price survey targeted a privileged group, broader polls have turned up similar findings.

Members of Gen X are short on savings, so they may need to work further into old age. But younger people have time to turn things around: While they got a slow start, they are still under the age of 40. Millennials have begun saving more as they work in greater numbers and benefit from a record-long economic expansion.

There’s even a movement — Financial Independence, Retire Early, or “FIRE” — dedicated to frugality in pursuit of quitting the work force as soon as possible.

Scott Rieckens, 36, and his wife Taylor, 35, began following a FIRE plan in 2017. The couple, who have one child, ditched their leased cars and $3,000-a-month apartment in San Diego to move to Bend, Ore. They save more than 50 percent of their income and aim to have the $1.7 million they think they’d need to retire by their early 40s, though Mr. Rieckens doesn’t plan to completely stop working then.

He recently produced a documentary on the FIRE movement, released last year, which drew more than 10,000 people to screenings in over 200 cities. The audience skewed younger, Mr. Rieckens said, explaining that FIRE appeals to millennials partly because they have faced precarious jobs without pensions.

“You start to get this sense of lack of control, and fear,” he said. “You can take control of your life.”

The Rieckens may be extreme savers, but many millennials with means are prioritizing saving. According to a recent Bank of America survey, 25 percent of millennial savers had amassed more than $100,000, up from 16 percent in 2018.

They have good reason. Millennials have grown up with dire warnings that Social Security will be exhausted by the time it is their turn to use it. They came of age in the worst downturn since the Great Depression, so they are no strangers to economic insecurity.

But there’s a paradox to thrift: Saving, even if virtuous on an individual level, can cause economic trouble en masse. If ambitious cash stockpiling were to catch on, it could exacerbate secular stagnation, a term that the Harvard University economist Lawrence H. Summers repopularized to describe the low-growth, low-inflation state of many advanced economies.

When consumers save a big portion of their income, they are not spending as much on dinners out, movie nights and cars. Businesses respond by investing less in equipment and technology, and productivity stalls. Bosses are unwilling to pay their workers more for the same output, and weak pay gains further restrain spending.

Retirement saving behavior is not the only driver causing economic torpor and lower rates. Inequality has left a small number of people with more money than they can realistically spend. Slower labor force growth and more iterative technological improvements could also have an impact.

The lower interest rates that result from high and unequal saving might sound great — think cheaper mortgages — but they leave economies vulnerable to shocks. In the United States, for example, rates are now in a range of just 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent, leaving the Fed room for about six quarter-point rate cuts in a downturn. Headed into the last recession, rates topped 5 percent.

Fed officials think mass bond-buying and promises to keep rates low for longer can give them power to fight a slump. But the jury is out on whether such alternatives will add enough ammunition to make up for lost room on interest rates.

Even Ben S. Bernanke, a former Fed chair with an optimistic take on the central bank’s ability to prop up the economy in a downturn, says officials could end up in a tight spot if rates drop substantially lower.

It is anyone’s guess whether they will stabilize at low levels, rise or resume their descent.

“A continued downtrend is as likely as reversion to normal,” Mr. Summers said. “Lots of the structural forces that are driving this seem likely to continue.”

That’s what makes millennial retirement behavior so interesting: It is a wild card still, one that could slightly lift or substantially lower rates going forward.

Policy could influence how things play out. The government could nudge workers toward later retirement or ramp up deficit spending on old-age benefits. Mr. Summers’s research shows that fiscal spending is already propping rates up. Alternately, uncertainty about the fiscal future — like whether the present complacency over large deficits continues — could spur millennials to save more now.

What is clear is that rates are unlikely to head higher soon. That makes maintaining slow but stable inflation more important than ever.

Doing so is proving difficult. The Fed’s preferred inflation index accelerated just 1.6 percent over the past year. It has never sustainably topped 2 percent since the Fed formally adopted that goal in 2012.

That shortfall is threatening to derail inflation expectations. Americans who lived through the great inflation of the 1970s remember an era when services and goods were rapidly increasing in price, and they tend to have a higher outlook for future prices.

Millennials and Generation Z are a different story. Rents and tuition have gotten pricier, but computing power worth millions of dollars a generation ago now fits into a $600 phone. Free entertainment abounds. As America’s collective memories of breakneck price gains fade, the nation’s younger people have become an anchor that threatens to drag down overall expectations.

John C. Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in a speech last month that “there is still time to avert this fate.” Moving inflation up and keeping it there could convince millennials, he said.

“In this case, it’s fortunate that the young are impressionable.”

Source:

NYT > Business

Posted on

On Instagram, Houseplant Sellers Turn Likes Into Green Thumbs

Ever heard of a plant coach?

They don’t wear whistles or train plants to grow. No, they instruct people on which plants will survive in their homes, teaching them how to take care of their chlorophyllous children and the way to style the greenery to their liking.

The playing field for these coaches is often Instagram, which has in many ways become a modern iteration of a department store for young people. Businesses tailored to the platform sell clothes, shoes, makeup, wigs, kitchenware — the list goes on.

And houseplants, popular among millennials, have increasingly taken root on the app. As begonias, monsteras and cactuses join microbladed brows, marble countertops and snow white apartment walls as hallmarks of the Instagram aesthetic, young entrepreneurs — or plantrepreneurs, as some call themselves — are building businesses selling plants and teaching others how to keep them alive.

In 2018, 18- to 34-year-olds accounted for 25 percent of total lawn and garden spending in the United States, up from 23 percent in 2017, according to the National Gardening Association. Last year, millennials spent over $13 billion on gardening, the association said. Many nurseries have waiting lists for their most sought-after species.

“Rather than just trying to sell, sell, sell, we create something that is not just about selling plants but is also about education,” said Puneet Sabharwal, 38, who along with Bryana Sortino, 36, runs Horti, a company that offers plants through a subscription service.

Horti, which began in 2017 in a Brooklyn apartment, initially mails customers simple, hardy seedlings. Once their plant-care confidence builds, they are sent species that require higher maintenance.

Mr. Sabharwal said that before he and Ms. Sortino formed the company, he had noticed that his friends were mostly making their plant decisions in shops, based on the plant’s appearance as opposed to their ability to sustain it.

Owning a plant, in other words, was more about the way it fit into an Instagram square and less about keeping a living thing alive.

“What ends up happening is that you buy plants that will end up dying, and it kills a lot of owners’ confidence in plants,” Mr. Sabharwal said. “If you get plants that will survive, it will give you this sense that you are doing a great job.”

As for the plants that don’t thrive past the initial #plantmom Instagram post, they may even represent a small environmental liability, according to Andrea Ruiz-Hays, the founder of Eco Strategies Group, a consulting firm that works with companies to help them develop more sustainable practices.

“You’re sending additional greens to the landfill,” Ms. Ruiz-Hays said. “These plants break down and they contribute to carbon emissions when it wasn’t needed from the beginning.”

Horti, which says it wants to help customers keep their plants out of landfills, is using Instagram to help as much greenery as it can survive.

The company’s Instagram account, which has over 35,000 followers, has become the best way to drive sales, Mr. Sabharwal said.

“I am running the Instagram account more as a gallery, including what is happening in the larger landscape of indoor planting,” he said.

According to Mr. Sabharwal, nearly all of the company’s plants are imported from Florida to nurseries on Long Island that distribute them. “Time is money for most of these growers,” he said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nurseries are also eager to profit from the rise of plant sales on social media.

Hirt’s Gardens, a plant seller in Ohio that has been in business for 105 years, has experienced a 30 percent increase in profits over the last decade because of social media, said Matt Hirt, one of the company’s owners.

Mr. Hirt, 42, said that the strong sales were in spite of buyers who take advantage of propagation, the ability of certain plant species to spawn new plants from cuttings. (He can tell when someone buys a plant to “love it,” he said, as opposed to buying it simply with a plan to propagate it and sell it forward.)

“It doesn’t take away from my profit,” Mr. Hirt said, adding that his internet sales for 2019 were around $1.5 million — nearly double the previous year’s.

Blane Turiczek, 24, the company’s social media manager, said that customers’ habit of tagging the nursery on Instagram helped keep plants flying out of the greenhouse.

“Some of the really cool ones right now have a waiting list,” she said.

A current Instagram favorite, with a six-person waiting list, is the “Pink Princess” philodendron, a houseplant that sells for $50 in a six-inch pot and has pink and dark green leaves. Some stems unfurl and reveal entirely pink leaves. The nursery usually gets two a week.

A spokeswoman for Instagram said that the company did not have any information about an uptick in plant sales on the platform, but added that “selling plants is popular on Facebook Marketplace.” (Instagram is owned by Facebook.)

Buying plants on social media carries risk, of course.

One danger is plant fraud: You might buy a rare plant as a seedling, with the promise that its coveted leaves will eventually show themselves, but it never delivers.

“It happens,” said Nick Cutsumpas, a plant coach who goes by @farmernicknyc on Instagram, where he has more than 23,000 followers and finds 90 percent of his clientele.

“You might be told that this cutting came from a variegated plant, which are rarer and susceptible to disease,” Mr. Cutsumpas, 27, said. “You might get a plant that is perfectly green and then two years in, you don’t see anything.”

And it may remain a mystery: “You won’t know if you didn’t give it the right environment or if it’s plant fraud,” he said.

But for most people, Mr. Cutsumpas said, keeping a plant alive that they bought online should be relatively straightforward, as long as they give it the proper attention.

“No one is born with a black thumb,” he said.