THE WISDOM OF AGE

Posted in Rants on April 25th, 2012 by Ed

By now we are well aware of how much it sucks to be a young adult in 2012 America. Yeah, it sucks to be a lot of ages, but the older generations at least have a few consolation prizes – the tail end of pensions and health benefits from employers, and a high likelihood of getting something out of Social Security and Medicare – even if insufficient. There isn't much else to say about unemployed, college graduate twentysomethings working at Starbucks or living at home.

This editorial from a Harvard Business Review writer raises an excellent, albeit incomplete, point about people currently in the 25-40 range before coming to one of the least satisfying conclusions since my visit to the I-10 Massage Cabana next to the Stuckey's (Exit 297).

The rules keep changing while you are mid-way through the game. The bedrock principles of Boomers' financial plans were: (1) A good education will help you get a good job and (2) Putting money into a home is the best way to build the equity for long-term financial security. Both of these rules have failed Generation X.

This, I think, is an important point. When people in my age-peer group talk about our careers and financial status, one of the things that comes up most often is how Our Parents just do not seem to understand that things have changed. We have conversations with our older friends or relatives who say things like, "There's no health insurance? That can't be right. Let me see the forms next time you visit," or, "Why haven't you bought a house yet? Renting is just throwing money away." They mean no harm; if anything, they mean to help (through nagging). That does not make such advice any less frustrating or impractical. People who graduated from college in the 1960s have a hard time grasping the concept of graduating from college and not being able to find a job. You must not be looking hard enough!

Now the goalposts have moved, and the part of the older generation that does understand the new reality has done what it does best: vote Republican and blame us for being dumb enough to take their advice. Why did we sink so much money into houses we can't afford? Why did we borrow $150,000 to go to law school? This requires complete amnesia of everything that our society encouraged people to do for, oh, 75 years prior to 2008, but that's not a problem. They do amnesia well. The author also neglects the important third pillar of the Boomer Advice: stocks. Stocks! Stocks! Stocks! Mutual Funds and whatnot too. Ameritrade! 401(k)! Jackpot! Yeah, that one didn't work terribly well either. Turns out that we're not all sitting at home, retired at 40 and e-trading all day.

Maybe the real problem is that, having realized that the House-College-Career advice is no longer good, relevant, or useful, they find themselves lacking an alternative. The urge to lecture us remains, but they appear to be running out of plausible platitudes. For those who realize that it's in poor taste and logic to play the blame game, the most popular advice these days appears to be:

More than ever, X'ers are being challenged to invent their own path forward. As it has been before, that path will almost certainly be less guided by conventional rules and less dependent on traditional institutions, than by X'ers' own sense of self-reliance and quest for multiple options. I encourage X'ers to re-imagine the next 30-50 years of your life: most of you won't have the institutionally-funded retirement options that many Traditionalists have enjoyed or the housing-based nest egg that provides many Boomers with the flexibility to blend volunteer and paid work over the years ahead. But you have your own ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills with which to build a unique future…X'ers should avoid even trying to follow the Boomers' path and, instead, have confidence to bring your own pragmatic sensibility both to organizational leadership — and to the design of your own life plan.

This is almost indistinguishable from the advice we might give someone on their way to prison: Figure it out, and good luck. Mom and Dad had pensions and job security, we have our "own sense of self-reliance and quest for multiple options." Neat.