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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Weighing in on Generational Angst

There’s a generational war going on. Nothing new, and no surprise to the history books. The “Occupy” protests is our generation’s youth movement, I guess. We all think we’re more enlightened than our parents and we prove it by camping out on government property. I'm of the generation involved in the latest, and I’m torn on this one.

A big part of me wants to grab a megaphone and call my peers to attention. As a full-time working, married, young mother, it’s irritating to watch my peers demand handouts for things I worked hard for, my parents struggled for, and my grandparents never even imagined.

I want to force them into reality. That our expectations as life-starters are too high and unrealistic. We demand the life our parents have now and forget that they worked many years to get there.

Look, I get it. It’s tough, but when has it ever been easy? When has a cushy job ever been guaranteed? A house? A nice car? Some people get lucky, most don’t. It’s always been that way. People used to dig ditches in rat-infested mud holes for a living. The daily grind of going to work wasn’t battling an annoying alarm clock, it was fighting death and disease.

I graduated college at the top of my class and ended up with a low-paying admin assistant job. It wasn't ideal, but I worked hard for a few years and gained as much experience in as many areas as possible. I've since moved up into a decent wage in a good admin job. Nothing spectacular, but I'm grateful. So yeah, it's still possible to work your way up as our parents did, and most people will have to.

Remember, our parents are probably only making $50-60k after decades of working. Why are we expecting to make that straight out of the box? I read an article sympathizing with the protestors and their plight. The jobs available to them are only in the $25-30k range. How can they be expected to build a life on that?

Really? $25-30k for a first job sounds pretty darn good. How much do you think our parents were getting at the bottom of their corporate ladders? Proportional to that, I suspect. Probably less, actually. The article was right, you can’t raise a family comfortably on that. Our parents couldn’t either. That’s why they struggled to make ends meet when we were children. My parents chose to get married, pool resources, live frugally, and make it work.

Why can’t we do that? We can, but we don’t want to. We want our cake with extra frosting, whipped cream and a cherry. Maybe a few cherries. After all, our elders are chowing down in front of us. What about us? We’ve earned….oh wait, we haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t earned anything but delusional entitlement.

So it’s simple, right? My generation is a bunch of spoiled brat lazy punks hanging out on sidewalks and tweeting about our “socioeconomic last stand” on our iPhones. It’s a revolution! Turn on your cigarette lighter app!

It’s tempting to go there, but that’s not entirely fair. It’s not so simple. Nothing ever is. Do I wish those people would clear off the streets and apply for one of the many low-paying, but steady jobs out there? Yes, of course. But I can’t help but think maybe things are different now. Maybe they kind of have a point.

As always I can only look at myself and my journey. In the end, that’s all I have to answer for. Ethically and morally. It’s also the only life I can speak about with any authority. And when I embark on self-examination, I do wonder if I was forced to enter a different world than my parents.

It’s not pleasant to confront, but here’s the dismal truth: we’re a generation of kids raised on hopes, dreams, and promises of self-esteem and fulfillment. We were promised a world that doesn’t exist. The rainbow and kitten fantasies fed to us in school and by well-meaning caretakers and counselors have probably done us a disservice. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach our kids to have confidence in themselves and shoot as high as they can, but telling each of us that we’re special and smart no matter how dumb and ordinary we are kind of set us up for unrealistic expectations. It was an illusion, but somewhere along the line our society decided it’s better to lie to our children and then blame and criticize them for believing us.

The adults before us have pushed out a generation of delusional dreamers. We’re kids who were never allowed to fail, never faced criticism, never told no, never glimpsed reality. We never learned how to win or lose, only that we should have fun playing the game. We were raised by Hollywood, mathematics based on feelings, trophies for breathing, subjective truth with an unhealthy fear of offending anyone by making claims of right and wrong.

We were prepared for a world that didn’t exist, sucker punched from a cushioned bubble we didn’t ask to encase us. Now we feel like we have to quit jobs when we don’t advance and give up after a few rejections because we’ve been taught to pursue success, but lied to about the failure that goes with it. The ultimate sin ingrained in our heads isn’t dependency, but spending our days being unsatisfied. And so here we are, camping out in protest of a world we were promised, but never existed.

I doubt our parents were “fulfilled” working for minimum wage on the line back in the 70's and 80's. They recognized it was a paycheck and helped make the rest of their lives possible. Our grandparents fought to put food on the table. They didn’t surf iPhones at a coffee shop. I recognize that, and maybe I’ve adapted to the real world better than some of my peers. At the same time, I can’t entirely blame them for believing the lies we were fed. They were guaranteed happiness, not the pursuit of it. Our parents were probably better prepared for their world than we are. Most of us can’t even do laundry. Forget balancing a check book or understanding the concept of sacrifice.

I’m one of the fortunate ones. Raised by “old fashioned parents” who expected me to be an adult before I was one, just like they’d been. Somehow I was ready for the world when it smacked me in the face. Somehow I learned integrity, conscientiousness, work ethic, and loyalty. Somehow I only expected what I earned, realized I wasn’t entitled to anything, that there are no free passes. That no matter how bad things are, they could always be worse. I should be grateful for what I have, generous with what I’ve been given. There are many others like me. There’s hope.

And I’ll admit, those of us who took the hard road battle frustration with young friends and family who flounder in victimhood instead of getting their hands dirty like we did. It’s not easy to surrender to early mornings and late nights while they lounge in front of gaming consoles in their parents’ house, bemoaning their lack of opportunity and all the reasons it’s not their fault.

So maybe we are just a generation of whiny youth after all, even if we have an excuse. Maybe, but when I turn back to the story of my life it seems to get more complicated yet again. Maybe our parents not only were better prepared to enter their world as adults, maybe they also entered a different one altogether.

Our older critics have conveniently not mentioned the fact that we now live in a society where you need a college degree to work at McDonalds. Those $25-30k low-paying sales, admin, and customer service jobs? Yeah, they exist. And yeah, you can work your way up. But you probably won’t get one anymore without a college degree that could put you back as much as $40-60k even if you chose the less-glamorous public university option.

My husband and I had that debt. We watched every little extra penny we were given and every little bonus we earned for several years go toward those massive bills instead of a down-payment on a house. The jobs our parents could get as an 18-year-old out of free, government-funded high school either no longer exist or generally require expensive advanced degrees now. Even though the jobs themselves may not require the knowledge and skill of a college degree, with so much competition, companies can afford to be picky. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

And it’s all financially downhill from there. Our parents think we’re crazy for spending as much as we do starter homes compared to what they paid for theirs. I have no doubt that’s true. It is crazy, but what choice do we have? Show us the houses available for what they paid. Even with the real estate crash, housing isn't nearly as affordable as it was even 15 years ago, let alone 25 when they were looking. Maybe in some parts of the country it is, but in the northeast/mid-Atlantic region even condos are two-income burdens.

Based on what you can expect for starting salaries these days, two incomes are needed to survive anyway. This becomes particularly tricky when you introduce children to the mix. Want to know why most of us young people are starting our lives later and later? Want to know why we’re still renting apartments and not even thinking about kids well into our thirties? Because we can’t afford houses.  We especially can’t afford kids.

So you do get married. You do have a kid as a mid-twenties couple. You do both work to survive. Guess what? You get slammed again. Even though we’ve created a society where both parents have to work to get by, few families can afford to do it. Most of my salary goes to childcare costs even though we send our son to one of the least expensive, reputable daycares in the area.  We don't have the friends and family to help with childcare that the generations before us had.

Communities used to raise children, provide casseroles, relieve collective burdens. Now we’re all on our own. More expectations, less resources, less time, very little support. And yet, families can no longer survive on one income, so we have to scrape by. We make out our monstrous weekly check to the daycare and monthly payment to the mortgage company.

What do we do? We can't afford to work. We can't afford not to. We need to take on massive debt to get a job that won’t pay back the loan. If we wait to start the lives we can’t afford, we get criticized for being lazy, selfish, and immature. We don’t understand the world around us, the world that is nothing like what we were taught to expect. It’s scary, depressing, and confusing. We don’t know what to do so a lot of us do nothing.

Some of us took to the streets. I’m still not exactly sure what my peers are trying to prove with these protests and I’m fuzzy on the details of the revolution they’re trying to instigate. I can make the argument that they’re immature, entitled, self-centered, and misguided. But maybe somewhere deep down in that messy pool of generational warfare there is a glimmer of truth. Maybe the older generation criticizing the movement is partially responsible for creating the monster.

Then again, tell that to our grandparents who survived the Great Depression only to be drafted into WWII.

Like I said, I’m torn.

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