THE WISDOM OF AGE

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.

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66 Responses to “THE WISDOM OF AGE”

  1. deep Says:

    @doug Oh, um… thanks! I'm so used to trolling around, I'm not used to people calling my comments "thoughtful". Heh.

  2. PWL Says:

    Well, same here Anonymouse. I didn't buy a McMansion–I simply wanted a house to live in–not as an ATM machine or status symbol ( though my mom did give that "a house is an investment" stuff–boy was she wrong–thank God I'm not underwater on it). So I'm not living in anything fancy.

    But then there's my neighbor who's renting across the street–running a scrap metal business out of his garage. Got a big silver Inifiniti w/ big chrome "W"s on the wheels parked out front. Heard him talking the other day how he used to have a "6-bedroom, 4-bathroom house." He's got a wife and two kids only. So it's easy to see what happened….

  3. HoosierPoli Says:

    Buying a house might not be an "investment", but I've always figured you're better off paying your own mortgage than someone else's.

    Capital is still the name of the game, if you can get some you can make more.

  4. Arslan Says:

    "Revolutionary" may indeed prove to be a successful niche, but leave "Communist" out of it. This is 2012 America calling you, because you seem to have missed the message from 1991 Russia. Communism is dead and buried, whether Marx's version or Stalin's. Even the Chinese are communist in name only."

    Yeah, the European monarchies and feudal nobility said the same thing about liberalism around 1815. Look how that worked out.

    "If we're going to have a new American revolution, it's got to be for things that Americans want. Abolition of private property will never be one of them. Nor will control of production by the state, except in the highly unlikely case of another WWII-level conflict."

    Interesting, I didn't know you could predict what Americans want so readily.

    "We don't need to do away with big business. Big business served us just fine back in the 50's and 60's. And there's the key – business needs to serve the people, not vice versa."

    Pure stupidity and nostalgia for a wonderful golden era that either didn't exist, or in this case, was due to very specific conditions of that era. Big business does not need to "serve the people", nor will it. It's job is to secure profits for its investors- period. Anything else is fantasy.

    " We're not even against some level of economic inequality. Every American wants to be able to rise to the top… and for that, we need a top to which we can aspire."

    Aspire to while you're living in the gutter, sure.

    "Even the European social democracies that are the darlings of the American left have large corporations, and rich and poor people. We can have a good country with those – I'm not too young to remember when we did. What we need now are corporations that aren't allowed a stranglehold on the government, the environment, and the employees, and an economic environment that, while it may have some inequality, at least allows people the hope of moving upward."

    Basically you're advocating going back to a time period you don't understand, and doing the same thing that big business managed to overthrow EASILY in the last 30 years. You slap some more regulations on them, and 10, 20 years down the road, they've managed to convince a majority of Americans that they're being "strangled" by regulations and they'd all be millionaires if they were "freed" from "big government."

    See the beauty of Marx is that we've got an infinite timeline and history will absolve us. Can't get over certain parts of the theory? No problem. Take a little more ass raping from capitalism. We'll be right here when you've had enough.

  5. Arslan Says:

    The shorter version:

    Claim Communism is dead and buried; tell us about how the American system in the 50's and 60's is the answer. (Because those days were such a picnic, as long as you were white and male)

    Fucking brilliant.

  6. PWL Says:

    Whatevah, Wednesday Political Sausage/Crasstalk. It's always fun to bitch about how everything bad is the prior generation's fault. Whining's always a lot of fun.

    My generation did it to our parents. Just hope you remember it when the generation after you starts shitting all over you about How Everything Bad Is All Your fault….as they will…..

  7. Jimcat Says:

    "See the beauty of Marx is that we've got an infinite timeline and history will absolve us."

    You may be right. I'll check back in infinity years to see.

  8. fuzzbuzz215 Says:

    We beggars cannot be choosers :-(

  9. Arslan Says:

    Well Jimcat, that's less than the time it would take for the 50's and 60's to reappear. Actually when I say that placing regulations on corporations like in earlier decades would fail as those corporations could remove them several decades down the road, I am being quite generous. The Democrats are so far to the right, and the lobbying industry is so powerful, that in the foreseeable future is highly unlikely that something like a new Glass-Steagall act could even be discussed in congress.

  10. flamesuited Says:

    man,

    there's clearly a lot of things to be bleak about right now, however so much of this comment thread is intra-commenter sniping and complaints. but of course, that's what i read this blog for ;)

  11. Anonymouse Says:

    @PWL: "Just hope you remember it when the generation after you starts shitting all over you about How Everything Bad Is All Your fault….as they will….."

    For GenX, that never quit. We went to school after St. Ronnie declared ketchup a vegetable and cut Pell grants for college. We managed to graduate in a recession and those of us lucky enough to land jobs had to listen to the Boomers whine simultaneously that they were the generation of peace-dope-skip-a-rope but that WE were slackers and knowing we could never move up the career ladder because of the huge blob in front of us. We were followed by the precious, precious snowflakes raised to think they all deserved trophies for simply existing who whine at us for having the bad manners to exist and therefore block their way into the corner office at age 22.

    We grew up hearing from those who benefited from the Sputnik-era good schooling and cheap college and booming economy that we were fools for not buying McMansions with the salaries we weren't getting because there was no hope of promotion.

  12. Elle Says:

    Dennis exemplifies the world view of those who look retrospectively at a life of good fortune and recast it as the product of wisdom and insight. I have no problem with the self-satisfied, except as dinner companions, save for when they use their accumulator-of-life winnings to beat other people over the head.

    Arslan, you are right on the money. As you will be aware, even in the socialist paradise (ha!) of Europe, the vogue for deregulation is not much abated. The idea that America could somehow bring its corporate citizens to heel, and start exerting pressure to close the chasm between the pay of average workers' and the largesse showered on the executive suite, seems like a pipe dream. If maintaining flows of capital to small and medium enterprises/R+D isn't even an economic priority, it's impossible to see mitigating corporate pollution or regulating supply chains to stop wholesale exploitation being high up the national to do list.

  13. Orpho Says:

    We can blame the Boomers (and I do, particularly all of them that didn't vote, or didn't _think_ and decided they lived in magical pony candyland where they didn't need no gov'mint to help them get their subsidized college education from their subsidized home loans for homes on public streets where they went to decent public schools bought with their parents' taxes, until they retire to receive Medicare and gov'mint-enforced retirement savings -not- lost in a puff of smoke in a stock market, and to chase kids off their lawn).

    I would also, however, blame the "corporations are people" ideology and the twisted humans who support it. The pathologies of corporations acting as (psychopathic) people have been well documented, but I think Wendell Berry has a reasonable twist on it in his Jefferson lecture (http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture):

    "Though the corporations, by law, are counted as persons, they do not have personal minds, if they can be said to have minds. It is a great oddity that a corporation, which properly speaking has no self, is by definition selfish, responsible only to itself. This is an impersonal, abstract selfishness, limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far ahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies."

    He's going on about how these limitless acquisitive psychopath "people" have wrecked the land, but they're also responsible for the utter lack of human-centered policy when it comes to jobs, financial derivatives, and countless others.

  14. Jadzia@Toddlerisms Says:

    Buckyblue: DO IT. We emigrated to France last summer and it is the best thing we possibly could have done for our children. Primarily because here, they will have access to higher education without starting out in life attached to a non-dischargeable five or six figure student loan debt. It is tough here for foreigners, that is true. But I saw this move as a sacrifice for us so that our children could have a better life. And so far that is really working out. Feel free to email me (address is on my Web page) if you want more information about this option.

  15. JP Says:

    Late to the party here, but like Ellie, I saw this coming from way back. Those prescient enough (Tanta from Calculated Risk was one, as was Dean Baker for another) saw this coming years before the collapse of 2007-8. All you needed was just one ratio & piece of info: the debt to income ratio for the 'average household' was at or above 100-120% and rising fast. That's the 'red zone' for Depression, along with the Gini index of inequality worse than 1929+. But the debt overhang alone was enough to do it. And ladies & gents, that line was basically being crossed in 2004, and more than a few thought the collapse would be in the middle of Bush's term. But they managed to jigger the scales to almost make it out the door unscathed. Practically for me that meant everything folks are doing now, but reducing debt before the disaster hit, and getting out of a moribund business as employees and getting into an allied field as investors/owners. Lots of yes very real sacrifice & risks later, and we have been hiring folks throughout the crisis.

    Sadly, as I've related here before, that's more difficult than it seems from the outside. We have very strict job requirements: you need to be able to speak, read & write english in complete comprehensible sentences & paragraphs as a bare requirement for entry as a college grad. Sadly fewer than 10% of those who apply make it though the first cut. Those that do and are hired can find a relatively comfy job where you yes, are required to sometimes work 55-60hrs a week, but this is seemingly impossible to manage to get anyone to do on a sustainable basis. So we have to content ourselves with the sub-obtimal solution of hiring 'part timers', (people who truly work far less than 40hrs/week), and paying them full time. And oh, they still whine loudly at the indignity of this affront! We also supply generous benes too. And for all these offenses we regularly get yelled at by our staff for 'shorting' them when we try to manage to be fair to everyone or dare demand that jobs be finished before they take vacation time with little or no prior announcement.

    So yes, there's really work to be had & done out there. There's just fewer & fewer folks who really 'know how' to 'work well' or 'diligently & consistently', or are willing & able to give up their 'lifestyles' to be able to pursue same. I'm not totally sure I blame them, it's a cushy gig no matter what they do and we're grateful for the few who actually do a decent job. The rest are just 'middling' of various orders of disgruntlement in what to us obviously is the best job any one of them will likely ever have. (I should add most of the office are Millennials & 'youngsters' under the age of 35 say). In 20 years or so they might look back in wonder and recognize this. By then we'll be long gone, worn to the bone trying to pick up the pieces for their poor work habits & products. Or we'll be shuttered due to the internal inconsistencies of paying too lavishly for mediocre work that needs constant correction & micro levels of supervision. Not likely sustainable for the long haul as a model of efficiency.

    That's the other side of the ledger here. From a life long Dem too.