Recently my father and I were having a conversation in which he mentioned a local news story he had seen. He paraphrased the coverage and explained that the producers predicted that the recent economic downturn will create the first generation of North Americans whose living standards will be lower than their parents’ material living standards. In other words, the home you make for your adult family will not be as nice as the one in which you grew up as a child. Until this point in U.S. history the name of the game has always been, to “give my kids more than what I had” or to “make it big.” Now, however, we have seen the macro-effects of a country who got heady with their spending. It all popped. The housing bubble popped, people trying to outdo their parents by buying more were humbled by the crash of credit.
The economic shift hit everyone, not just the irresponsible spenders. I read several articles in our alumni magazine about how 30% of the most recent graduating class has accepted unpaid positions after graduation, 40% work for NGOs and scarcely any are headed to Wall Street. What a change! What a departure from the big days of Goldman Sachs hires and six figure 22 year-old salaries of just six years ago.
Our country has been collectively disappointed by the fleeting nature of material wealth, but I also find myself wondering about the micro-level of these changing expectations. What is going on inside each family, rather than in “the Sun Belt” or the “inner cities?” What is important to us as adults? When Dad mentioned that my generation would be “worse off” then our parents’ generation, my mind immediately snapped to my immediate family. We fit the generalization. We provide “evidence” for this local news story’s headline! My parents were both career naval officers. Yet, my husband and I are living on one Army officer’s salary, we will have a much larger family and he does not intend to make a career of the military. There is little mystery in the world of government salaries. We don’t get Christmas bonuses, nor unexpected promotions, it is all laid out in a little chart that gets approved every year on the floors of Congress. Therefore, it is fair to say that my family is living at 50% the standard of living of the home in which I grew up.
“But, wait,” I thought, “no way, this news story is garbage. You can’t measure my quality of life by the figures that plink into our online bank accounts on the 1st and 15th of every month!” Rather, I think there is something much more profound going on here. Could it be that some members of our generation have made the educated decision to live off less? Is it possible that some graduates of 2000 and beyond insulated ourselves from the economic depression by limiting our expenses before it was a national mandate. Our frugal spending is proactive rather than a reaction to the crisis of a job lost or a mortgage foreclosed. We spend only on necessities to teach our children the way to live rightly rather than shocking them with less spending because one parent lost a job that was needed to “make ends meet.”
So, to that local news team that drummed up a story about our generation’s “lesser expectations” by looking at lower starting salaries or lower family net-worths – I challenge you to look a little deeper. Perhaps there is a cultural shift going on here: led by children who were raised and educated to know what is important and who have, consequently, set out to live our lives with these much changed, not lowered, expectations.