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.

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KATHERINE WOOTTON is a freelance writer and reviewer living in London, UK. Her work has appeared in the Quill & Quire, National Post, Women's Post, and online at the literateur.com, Danforth Review, and blogTO.com. She also satisfies her creative urge by working in theatre and television production. You can read her blog at unsolicitedopinion.wordpress.com

5 responses to “Cheap and Disposable”

  1. Gloria says:

    Interesting.

    You know, i got my college degree the year I turned 30. I was the first person in many generations to graduate high school. I was the first person maybe ever to get a college degree. I come from people who don’t go to the doctor. Who don’t take their children in for well child check ups, which I do. Both of them. I’ve done all of this at great personal expense. I amassed loans during my time in college that I will be paying well into my seventies. I work a decent job thanks to my degree, but I live paycheck to paycheck and there are many 14 day cycles where those funds almost don’t cut it.

    I don’t know. It’s just really hard to feel a whole lot of empathy for the Bourgeoisie and their need to adjust their sails.

    And maybe this essay isn’t about entitlement, but maybe it should be. Because that’s probably where I actually can relate. I made my own bed with my debt because I felt entitled to my very, very expensive piece of paper – and not because I had a pony and a trip to the family beach house twice a year, but because I was born whip-smart and could think my way out of my cycle.

    But if this essay is actually a loving nod to a bygone era and attitude, I would love to hear more about that.

    Anyway. All interesting stuff.

    • Katherine says:

      Gloria – I did try to include the point that, obviously, this is an essay from a position of privilege, and it’s more about a shift in attitudes and expectations. As you know, a university degree does have value, but it isn’t the golden ticket we were told it was in high school.

      You’re right in saying that this sense of entitlement is worth examining – in this instance, I was looking at how I was taught to live, rather than why, and the repercussions of that, for the boomers and their kids.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Katherine-

    A very thoughtful and timely essay. The whole world’s tightening its belt, and as we put some distance between the initial horrors of the global recession, rays of light are starting to peek through as more and more people find ways to enjoy themselves the old fashioned way- hanging out without stuff.

    Whenever I move, I’m always reminded that out of all the stuff I have, I probably need only 10% of it to get by. Max. But that’s all so quickly forgotten before the pictures are even hung. These past three years have really brought me back to revisiting what I have and learning how to make the most, or at the very least, new things, from it. It’s been good.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Are you kidding? Seriously. I would much rather walk ten miles to drink germ-infested water than have to give up my sunglasses. Bruce Willis wears these.

    It’s very much a cultural illusion – we rise and adapt to the standard around us, and it generally takes something so much larger than ourselves to throw a spanner in the works. A Global Financial Crisis will do it nicely.

    I went to a high school where they trained us that basically, once you had a degree, the rest of the world fell into place.

    No training in how to fill out a tax form. No auto maintenance. Nothing to do with organisation, or motivation, or, God forbid, cooking.

    Just hey. Get a degree, everything will be cool.

    Not true.

    Thoughtful essay, Katherine.

  4. Marni Grossman says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot. I often mourn the fact that I will never be as successful- financially, anyway- as my parents. And it feels unfair, doesn’t it? But then I try and remind myself that the world doesn’t owe me anything and I ought to just suck it up.

    Still. It feels awfully unfair.

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