When I was young, my family lived quite comfortably. We traveled often and well and, as I got older, our standard of living increased. Although I was not spoiled and had a job from age 16, I was able to experience a lot of things and didn’t often want for anything – activities, clothes, education, travel; all were, if not freely available, put on a wish list to a highly reliable Santa Claus.
My family has since, like many families in the US, had to tighten their proverbial belt. They are okay, sometimes better than others, and much better off than many, but having built a lifestyle on a particular income has created problems as their resources have diminished.
My parents joked throughout my childhood that they were ‘spending the inheritance’, which is fair enough; I’d much rather have memories of family vacations than a check at the age of 60 or so. But it also means that, while they would never let me starve, and would do their utmost to give me what I needed or wanted, I cannot in fairness ask them for anything (without a promise of repayment). This is not to say that I don’t ask, merely that I think it’s not fair that I do, and I try to avoid it.
I am content to support myself, and have a horror of being dependent. But. The economic climate being what it is, I know full well that I will never be able to live to the standard my parents set in the carefree ‘90s. There has been much written about the land of milk and honey created for the boomers by the austerity and forethought of the ‘Greatest Generation’, and how it’s now coming to bite their children in the ass.
Because we grew up thinking that we could have anything, do anything, be anything (if not all at once), as long as we had our expensive degree and middle class upbringing. We, or our parents, imagined that our future selves would always have more to spare, that there would always be more than enough; unlike our grandparents, who lived with uncertainty and therefore with modesty and preparedness.
We’ve grown up in a world where so much is disposable, and where so much seems ‘necessary’ for basic comfort. I would not say a word against indoor plumbing, but I have clothes that I bought last year that are now unwearable – stretched out of shape, discolored, faded, holey, or frayed; shoes (decent, brand name) that didn’t last a year – I wore a hole in the toe. I don’t suggest that the 1950s were some kind of golden era for consumer goods, but that our attitude towards everything is different – we want things cheap, so when the newer, fancier version of whatever it is appears, we can justify replacing what we have.
I don’t think it’s wrong for people of ‘my generation’ to reign it in – to not live on credit, to plan for misfortune. I think that we merely have to be sensible, responsible and pragmatic, in a way that our parents didn’t think they, or we, would have to be. We grew up at a time when the comfortable middle class assumed that there would always be more later. Now we live with the knowledge that there might not be. There might be less, there might be nothing, and we’ll have to make do.
This is hardly walking ten miles through a desert to fetch a pail of germ-infested water, and the sense of entitlement here is the subject for a different essay all together; these are the problems of the residents of a wealthy country, who find themselves in a rough patch rather than in the middle of an ongoing civil war, or subject to massive natural disasters and rampant disease.
We’ll probably never have as much as our parents, whose investments seemed to grow effortlessly and continuously. And that is really okay. Because our grandparents had it right – we don’t really need all this crap.