The Los Angeles Times has coined a new term for the generation presently aged 18 to 29: “Generation Vexed.” The term captures all the economic anxiety, the future-related frustrations, the delicate disgust with disappointed expectations of those who grew up accustomed to comfort, but came of age in the midst of a financial crisis. The label soberly cloaks what was formerly the “Self-Esteem Generation,” that group of supremely self-satisfied youngsters who were taught to regard themselves highly, regardless of whether they had done anything to deserve high regard; who classified themselves always and irrelevantly as “winners”; who assumed any completed assignment at all was worthy of an “A.”
A connection? I think so.
Sure, we didn’t ask to be pumped full of pride as clueless kids. And no, we didn’t ask to enter the workforce when unemployment was upwards of 8 percent. Certainly, we never begged to inherit $14 trillion in national debt. But we fell into the trap of using all of these ready circumstances outside of our control as excuses for our own inexpert and imperfect maturation. We thought our mere existence assured us a life of luxury — and, when life taught us otherwise, we did what bratty adolescents always do. We blamed our parents.
And because our parents were of that utterly irresponsible generation, the Baby Boomers, because they actually did buy into psychobabble when they parented us as babies, because they did concoct financial instrument on top of financial instrument, because they did run up the national debt, the narrative made sense. They were to blame for the nation’s problems and we, the innocent, stood to suffer for their selfishness.
Somehow, we’ve even managed to garner a reputation as an unprecedentedly responsible generation, as the generation to revive faith in something greater than ourselves, as the generation to introduce a libertarian-leaning fiscal conservatism to the federal government, as the generation to sidestep self-destructive behaviors out of an-almost boredom because we’ve grown up on gadgets and so find alcohol, drugs and promiscuity to be a little, well, passé.
And perhaps all of that is true of us: I certainly hope so, and I think it’s possible we will achieve positive results as we come to power and influence. But I’ve also heard it repeatedly said — or feared — that we will be the first generation to be forced to accept a standard of living lower than that of our parents. And I want to explore why.
Is it because we’re the first generation to face a challenge not of our own making? Hardly. Every generation has inherited the good, the bad and the unasked-for from the previous generation. Think of the children of the American Revolution: Opportunity abounded, but so did danger and scarcity. The children of the Civil War: Fathers were absent for the years of the war and often never came home, leaving kids without male role models. More recent generations inherited the Great Depression and two World Wars that, while a boon for the economy, were nevertheless no ideal inheritance. So, it’s not that.
Is it because we view “standard of living” from the prism of a perfectionistic materialism? That seems a little more likely. Somewhere along the line, the American Dream — which once encompassed the deeply rooted desire to live free from intrusive government intervention, to govern ourselves, to express religious beliefs without fear of government reprisal — was reduced to just the material — the car, the house, the kids (with or without the spouse, as though marriage is simply for personal fulfillment, as though children are the equivalent of pets!). And as long as the American Dream was just material, the means by which it was achieved no longer mattered. Hence the experiment in redistribution of wealth undertaken by FDR and his philosophical successor, LBJ.
And if that’s all we, Generation Vexed, are going for — an ever-more material American Dream — then, yeah, we’ll have a lower standard of living than our parents because we’re on the losing end of the New Deal and the Great Society. That is, we’re entering the picture just as the worker-to-retiree ratio has begun to be unsustainable, just as entitlement programs are about to go bust, just as the art of war has changed in such a way as to no longer galvanize the country and the economy in the way it once did.
But those of us who were born or grew up in America are still the least-deprived generation to ever live. If anything, that’s what’s tripping us up. We think we’re down and out because a cushy career at a non-profit didn’t court us (I’m not making this up — that’s the example the Los Angeles Times gave as representative of Generation Vexed).
Yes, we’ll have to make difficult choices. We might have to forgo expensive educations in favor of affordable state schools, might have to work a little harder or a little longer than we expected, might have to settle for a smaller first house. But I don’t buy it that we have to put off marriage or our entrepreneurial dreams. Who says money is the biggest predictor of marital success? (For the record, according to research from the Gottman Relationship Institute, it’s not.) And the economy is always receptive to added value.
In other words, we don’t have to accept a lower standard of living: We just need to redefine in our minds what it means to live well, have courage, take risks — and see in our “deprivation” an opportunity to create. We need to remember a life is more than the material, revive pleasure in learning, pleasure in striving, pleasure in celebrating successes with family and friends.
Maybe it’s cliché to say it, but whether we outstrip our parents in freedom, happiness and prosperity is all in our attitude.