Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Spoiledest Generation

This is admittedly from my own personal perspective, and is not meant to be a general observation that applies to everybody.

My father came to the United States with $80 in his pocket and no friends or personal contacts in America. He had to borrow money for his plane ticket. My mother came here also with hardly any money, and didn't know anybody but my dad. They were not married at the time- she was friends with my dad's sister, who asked my dad to find my mom a place to stay and help her enroll in junior college.

My mom initially stayed with a nice family, trading some babysitting and household chores for room and board while she went to junior college. That is, until she kept getting sick and the family asked her to move out. After my parents married, my father went to night school for his accounting degree. In addition to night school, he worked two jobs to support my mom and his sister (my aunt came over for a short while), both of whom were attending junior college.

Most in my parents' generation don't speak English well. They didn't have access to high paying jobs when they were building their lives. They usually had to start their own businesses, funded with money they personally borrowed from family and friends. Despite the disadvantages they faced, my parents and those of their generation managed -through hard work, sacrifice, and sheer determination- to raise a family, bring lots of relatives over, and help each other attain at least a middle class income.

I think being so accustomed to self-sacrifice compelled my parents and those like them to shelter their offspring from the same difficulties they themselves faced throughout their lives. And in some ways, I think our parents' good intentions had unintended consequences, because we the children certainly took advantage of it. I was afforded a private education my entire life- it was costly and my parents had to sacrifice a lot to send me to private school and college, but they always managed to come up with the tuition somehow. I never really had to work to earn spending money when I was young- my parents always gave me a generous allowance even though they sometimes struggled to pay the mortgage and other bills. At most I would help out at the family business on weekends. But that was more like just hanging out in downtown L.A. on Saturdays and doing a smidgeon of work here and there when I got bored or felt inspired.

Naturally, my experience is similar to those of many of my friends and cousins. Most of us would help out our parents here and there, but mostly we just took everything we had for granted. We hung out, went to school, and spent our parents' money. We whined, cajoled, and demanded our way to some shiny new car when we got our drivers' licenses. We went skiing in the winter, went to New York or Europe in the summer, and bought excessively expensive camping gear for class trips in the fall. All on our parents' dime.

Now our parents are nearing retirement age, and we are all grown up, with responsibilities and families of our own. We have college degrees and professional careers, nice cars, expensive homes and large mortgages to match. Yet we are not all that actively focused on building savings and assets. Many of us have high enough income that, with a lot of saving and some calculated risk, could lead to true wealth accumulation and ultimate financial security. But we don't care about that. As a generation of shallow imposters, we simply care about projecting the perception of wealth. We can point endlessly to the marketeers and McKinsey consultants who have propagated the mass luxury market, but ultimately we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We don't pay much attention to the only part of our financial lives that we have 100% control over: costs. We simply want our luxury cars, trophy houses with granite kitchens, designer clothes, meals at fancy restaurants that serve bland food. And we don't want them when we can truly afford them. We want them now. Instead of thinking about asset allocation, we think about whether we have enough cash coming in every month to make the payments that support our lifestyle. In our minds, the high income spigot feeds from a bottomless well and never gets clogged.

A lot of us in the kids' generation probably would have benefitted greatly from facing more career and financial hardship. I can't help but think that our priorities would be quite different- we'd probably care a lot more about having cash in the bank and a lot less about 5 star hotels and home decorating. It would certainly adjust our expectations and make us more grateful for what we have. Since when did lifestyle become a worthwhile goal? Financial security for yourself and your family is a worthwhile goal. Fostering strong personal relationships with your family and friends is a worthwhile goal. Indulging in expensive wine and custom furniture are not.

It's funny how, despite all of my negative observations about my generation, in my parents' eyes they feel that their goal in life has been accomplished. From the day I was born, all they really wanted was to assure that I lead a life filled with happiness and security, no matter the sacrifice to them.

For my own generation, though, I wonder about how we will look back on our own lives when we are old and retired. We're in our late twenties and early thirties now. For our entire working lives we've never experienced an economic downturn that's lasted longer than a year or two. We've never been net borrowers with interest rates at 13%. We've never owned a house for 10 years without seeing it appreciate. We've never had a favorite aunt or sister ask us for a large personal loan to start some risky business. We've never felt compelled to seriously consider such a request simply because we don't want our loved ones to go from their menial day jobs to the graveyard shift at a gas station every night just to pay their bills. We've never had to decide between taking a vacation and paying our kids' tuition. We've never had to defer paying a credit card bill to free up enough cash for a down payment for our teenage child's first car. We've never faced true hardship in any way that is remotely comparable to what our parents had to endure.

Today we face war in Iraq, diplomatic conflict with a defiant Iran, the threat of terrorism, a breathtakingly large trade deficit, and a receding (perhaps bursting) real estate market. It is quite possible that in the unforeseen future looms a protracted economic downturn. One that adversely affects the careers and livelihoods of the majority of us who are now in our prime. On Wall Street they have a saying: "In a bull market, everyone can claim to be a genius. But a bear market truly separates the men from the boys." I wonder how our character holds up if we ever encounter such hardship.

And perhaps many of us will be blessed from the day we are born to the day we die with the inheritance of a sheltered existence that our parents so dearly bought for us. That would certainly be good for our own comfort, but how does that affect the way we raise our own children, and the values we pass onto them? When all of us -our parents' and our own generation- are all long dead and gone, how do our incomplete set of values translate into any sort of a lasting, constructive legacy for future generations? Decades from now, when people look back on my own generation, will they comment on our outstanding character? I don't think they will. I think they will condemn us for our unhealthy sense of entitlement. For failing to recognize that the greatest inheritance our parents left to us is not the fancy education or the down payment on our first house, but rather the selfless example they set and the strength of character they embodied in building truly meaningful lives.

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Anonymous Patricia said...

That was the deepest blog I think I have read! Very true. I am at your age group too.. though my parents didn't do all that great stuff for me :) You were blessed. I think in trying to give their children the best they can, parents sometimes forget to teach their children how to work for things and respect those who have. But all we can do is learn from our past experiences and incorporate meaning into the present. Looks like that is what you are doing...

11:31 AM  
Blogger rick james said...

true, true, true..

guilty of all of the above...

actually, i think this next generation is gonna be a much tougher bunch cause they're gonna have a lot of hardship and issues to deal with...

they won't be able to afford decent housing, white collar jobs will all be outsourced to india, and 5 dollar gasoline is right around the corner... the outlook just doesn't look too bright...

great post jack...

lemme get back to my foot massager...

1:04 PM  
Anonymous jamie ford said...

Great post. Both of my parents came from modest means, and I grew up fairly poor. But my dad had an unyielding work ethic, and he didn't make excuses or blame anyone. I learned a lot from that example.

Now I look at my kids (and their peers) and wonder how this soft-bellied generation can possibly cope. Maybe all generations think this.

We try to give our kids less. Say no more often. Leave the TV off, and basically be that living example to our own children.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

The perception of wealth you're talking about is so true. I don't only see evidence of this in possessions either, I see it the whole "keeping up with the Jonses" mentality that permeates our culture. Marriage, children, etc.

Man this is bringing me down now.

On a brighter note, I added yor link!

6:12 PM  
Blogger jackt said...

Patricia: I definitely try to live and learn, and limit the amount of hypocrisy in my everyday life. Easier said than done! =)

DCCF: High unemployment, nobody can afford to own a home, and petrol at twice the going price. Wow, I guess America's gonna become Europe! =) Let's hope that if the s**t were ever to truly hit the fan, our overblown sense of entitlement doesn't prompt us to start throwing cafe chairs and overturning cars, like some other country we all know across the pond. =)

Jamie: Wow. Between my parents' lifelong dedication to work, and my lazier cousins' constant whining (their underachievement is never their fault for some reason), what you said here in 9 sentences gets to the heart of what I was thinking but was unable to clearly convey in an entire, ridiculously winded post!

Janet: Much thanks for the link love! It's funny how all this social competitiveness is so pervasive in our society these days. I have a friend whose co-worker suggested he get on the waiting list for a fancy daycare facility *immediately* to get a leg up. At the time, my friend's wife was only a few months' pregnant! Would've been fun to fill out that application form. lol.

9:36 PM  
Anonymous George Bush said...

I plan to leave my children a gargantuan national debt, polluted environment, and countless international enemies.

11:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post indeed !!
i've got your link from one of my dearest senior related to you, and it worths :)
Though i'm a lot younger than your mentioned age, i'm sure i've lived and learned a lot more compared with people at my age.
Unlike those in spoiled generation; while my single mom struggled to raise her children, i was by her side to face it all together. It's been hard and tired. i always wish it'd end up as good as yours or others...but seems like it's not time for my family.
Anyway, i won't give up :)
I've a plan for us and will achieve it!!!


12:44 AM  
Blogger jackt said...

GWB: Thank you for visiting. Next time I'm in DC I'll be sure to stop by your place for dinner and stay a night or two.

Anon: You must be friends w/ Ammie. Sounds like you've accomplished a lot already! Wishing you great success in all of your future endeavors.

8:24 AM  

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