Wednesday, January 09, 2013

‘Permanently depressed?’ Maybe, but here’s hoping for ‘more fulfilled and happy.’

A few weeks ago, I read an at least temporarily depressing article on Bloomberg about the fortunes – or lack thereof – of the Generation Y professionals that started their Generation Y professional careers just as The Great Depression clunked in.

This generation will be permanently depressed* and will be on a lower path of income for probably all of their life -- and at least the next 10 years,” says Rutgers professor Cliff Zukin, a senior research fellow at the university’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Professionals who start out in jobs other than their first choice tend to stay on the alternative path, earning less than they would have otherwise while becoming less likely to start over again later in preferred fields, Zukin says. (Source: Bloomberg.)

The article catalogued an assortment of bright young things -  a couple of lawyers, an architect,a b-school grad – who thought they were grabbing the brass ring, only to find out it was made of flimsy plastic and broke in their hand.

One lawyer – a Cornell grad – had bounced from a high-paid Manhattan gig to a job in a futures-trading firm in Houston:

…where an irate customer punctuated a recorded voice-mail message with gunfire.

“No one was left with the impression that he just happened to be phoning from a sporting clays range,” [Christina Tretter-Herriger] says.

Well, I wouldn’t have had to listen to a voice-mail punctuated with gunfire twice to remove myself from deep in the heart of Texas. So maybe that’s why Tretter-Herriger now finds herself deep in the heart of upstate New York, making a quarter of what she pulled down when she was working in NYC, and training horses and giving riding lessons on the side. She’s hoping to invest in rental property to she has an income source if she loses yet another job.

“As it is, all of my possessions still fit in the back of my truck,” she says. “I can pack it in a couple hours, pick up the trailer and horses and move anywhere the gas tank will take me at the drop of a hat. What can the system take away from you when you have that kind of freedom?”

Okay, hard to be too for someone from a sufficiently well-heeled background that she keeps a couple of horses. But mostly it’s hard to have anything other than admiration for someone who can fit everything she owns in her truck and trailer. Sounds like she’s going to be able to live the life she wants to, rather than be roped into the high pressure partner-chase Manhattan lifestyle. Riding boots are probably a lot more comfortable than Louboutins, any way.

Admittedly, it may not be good for the overall economy that:

Average incomes for individuals ages 25 to 34 have fallen 8 percent, double the adult population’s total drop, since the recession began in December 2007.

But it may well be long-run better for the mental health of individuals, and for the soul of the country, if people wake up and realize that having a McMansion with a “great room” and chocked-full walk-in closets that size of yesteryear’s average living room is not necessarily the path to happiness.

Would it actually be possible to change the American Dream to one of personal fulfillment, accomplishment, freedom and health that doesn’t include his and her sinks in the en suite bathroom? Or would the economy totally crumble if we all came to a realization that less may well be more, and that experience and relationships (should) trump possessions?

I certainly don’t wish financial hardship on Generation Y, or on all the little Z’s to follow. I certainly hope that they are materially secure enough to buy homes, start families, and save for the future. But maybe those houses don’t have to be 3,000 square feet. Maybe those kids don’t need designer clothing. (No getting away from having to save for the future, however.) And I certainly hope that Generation X, Y, and Z aren’t so overburdened by the longevity of the Baby Boomers that they end up having to slip mickeys into our Ensure to get rid of us.

But if downward mobility, in which the next generation doesn’t earn as much as their parents did, is the wave of the future, let’s make the most of if, why don’t we. It really is possible to find happiness, even if you aren’t driving a Lexus. 

Which is not to say that we as a society shouldn’t be putting more effort into making sure that there are decent, career-track jobs for our college grads. Not to mention our high school grads, who have it a lot worse. It would certainly be nice if everyone who wanted a full-time job could find one…

Maybe colleges need to get more explicit from the get-go about how students need to prepare for the jobs that are out there. I’m all in favor of a liberal arts education, and I don’t want to see colleges turned into trade schools. My fear is that we’re moving towards a society where taking a history or literature course is such a foolish luxury, only those at the most elite colleges will be allowed to do so. (I actually read somewhere that someone had proposed charging liberal arts students more than engineering and business students, to nudge folks into more “practical” choices.) But the sooner kids are made aware of the realities, the sooner they can adjust their expectations. Go ahead and major in the classics. Just make sure you take a couple of computer science courses on the side. Or otherwise figure out how you’re going to make a living that works for you.

A lot of the professional jobs that employed those history and comp. lit. majors are gone, baby, gone. So you’d better be prepared for the jobs that are out there – and/or to live with less. And, hopefully, come to the realization that living with less is not the worst thing that can happen to you.

Easy for me to say, of course. Here I am, perched at the end of a modestly successful, reasonably interesting career. And I was able to have that modestly successful career, even though I spent a good portion of my twenties working as a waitress and traveling. The world was a much more forgiving place then.

It’s shame that Generation Y, under the twin burdens of school debt and consumer expectations shaped by the shopping malls that are today’s cathedrals, aren’t able to do the same.

But no one should be ‘permanently depressed’* because they’ll never live in a house like the one in Home Alone. It really is possible to be fulfilled and happy in more humble digs.

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*And, yes, I get that they mean permanently depressed incomes, not permanently depressed psyches. Just taking a little blog-etic license here…

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