A recent article on Slate.com discussed how twenty-somethings are dealing with the recession. I particularly like the title: "The Real World Threw Up All Over Us." The article does, at times, seem a bit whiny on the part of the twenty-somethings interviewed, but the author is careful to say that the e-mails she received were anything but whiny. They just showed how uncertain people are feeling.
I think a lot of us understand. As the article points out, we "set up [our] lives based on assumptions that suddenly no longer apply." And we don't know what the new rules are. A lot of us grew up with the belief that we should go to college, get a good education, and if we worked hard, we would get good jobs and by our late twenties, be buying homes and starting families. And while that still occurs, I think everyone feels a bit more economic pressure.
One big problem, I think, is student loans. I was always encouraged to aim high and to get the best education possible. At eighteen, do you really understand what student loans mean? Sure, I was a very smart eighteen-year-old, but I don't know that I could conceptualize the idea of paying off loans for twenty years or more. I just wanted to go to a good school where I could get a good education and have a great time doing it. Plus there's always the underlying belief that if you do well enough, you'll get a great job and pay off those loans in no time flat.
Clearly, that’s not what’s happening. And student loans are nothing new. My mom still talks about the payment book from my dad’s college tuition and how she wrote that check every month for years until the loans were paid off. But even with inflation, he wasn’t faced with the numbers that students are faced with today. I am astonished to see that some interest rates on student loans are now well over 10%. Students need to strongly consider the risk-reward of taking out these kinds of loans to pay for their education and how difficult repayment will be. Though you may not be able to get as good of a job with a high school degree, you won't have any student debt to pay off. It is no longer automatically a smarter decision to attend college, you now have to really consider the risk you are taking on. It is smart to take a look at the average salary of a graduate from the schools your are considering.
Sure, some of that is their fault. Before law school, I distinctly remember a lawyer I worked with telling me "Be sure to take out extra loan money so you can go on a sweet Spring Break trip. You can just pay it off later. It's totally worth it." I didn't listen to that particular advice, and I can't say that I regret that.
Given my recent work highs and lows, one quote in the article really rang true for me. A woman taked about waiting for a promised promotion and not wanting to ask for more and be more vulnerable to a layoff, yet having always thought of herself as someone who would value her worth and demand fair pay. It's definitely a struggle. No one wants to be undervalued at work, especially when others around you are compensated higher than you for equal work. But sometimes, being the lower paid employee doing excellent work makes your position safer in the company.
At the same time, there are some positives. The article speaks of learning to live more simply. While it may seem tough to not have a lot of disposable income, if you can learn to live on less and be happy, then when you do find yourself making more money, maybe you won't feel the need to go spend it immediately. You'll learn to save and spend your money on what's most important. My grandparents still live a very simple day-to-day life, doing everything they can to save a few pennies (rinsing foil and plastic bags, wearing clothing til it literally falls apart, then repairing it), but they're financially very well off, probably due to this way of life. Not that they're cheapskates. As I've discussed here before, they go on nice vacations and go out to dinner and to the theater where they splurge on the good seats. But that's what's important to them.
I wonder if perhaps this struggle is a good thing. I'm on the cusp between Generation X and Generation Y, but the general impression is that people currently in their twenties were all born with silver spoons in their mouths, even if our parents couldn't necessarily afford it. We never had to struggle for much of anything. I went to a presentation by a eighty-something feminist historian who commented that young people, people under twenty-five (she looked very pointedly at me, though I passed that mark years ago), don't know what it means to struggle. They have been given everything they have ever wanted and they are weak because they don't know what it's like to have to fight to get what you want. While I think that's an overgeneralization, the idea that having to struggle and work for something makes you stronger and makes you value it even more. So perhaps the good part to this economic struggle is that it reminds us that life isn't always easy and can't be planned, but hard work and determination pay off in the end. And that building a substantial savings account feels pretty darn good.