When Young People's High Hopes Create Despair

Twenty-somethings trying to replicate their parents' wealth get off track.

By SHARE

As I was reading a recent story in Slate on 20-somethings complaining about how the economy was ruining their life plans, I couldn't help but think the 20-somethings quoted in the article sounded like a bunch of spoiled brats who grew up expecting everything to be easy for them. As a 20-something myself, I certainly share their frustration: My 401(k) has also plummeted, my husband and I probably won't be able to buy a house until we're in our 40s, and we too are burdened by student loans. But why should it be any different? Isn't part of being a young person in America about embracing all of the challenges, and opportunities, that this country offers?

Consider some of these perspectives shared in the Slate story: Jennifer, 29, owner of a two-bedroom condo with her husband, worries that she won't be able to have children for at least a decade because they can't afford to buy a house yet.

I read that, and I thought, what planet is she living on where you need to own a house in order to have kids? Has she ever visited a developing country, or even downtown areas in this one? Home ownership is a luxury, not a fertility requirement.

A 26-year-old in the story despairs that can't afford to get a Ph.D. in literature and women's studies to study Margaret Atwood's work. Well, that sounds a bit like expressing disappointment that no one will pay you to write poetry on the beach in Thailand for five years. If you want to be able to feed and clothe yourself, you have to find work that people are willing to pay you to do.

Yes, it's sad that these young people feel so lost. But I think the problem is their astronomical expectations, not economic reality. Beth Kobliner, author of Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, says that she thinks people's expectations are slowly adjusting, but today's 20-somethings grew up at a time when everyone's wealth appeared to be expanding. Their parents probably saw their home values rise along with their investments. "So you have people who have grown up in an environment where people had inflated expectations of what living well means," says Kobliner.

This recession will certainly play a role in forcing those expectations into more realistic alignment. In the meantime, it seems a lot better for our mental health to focus on being grateful -- for our one-bedroom apartments, for living in vibrant cities, or perhaps just for being able to eat three meals a day -- than on lusting after some kind of mythical luxe life.

For more, read:

  • Beth Kobliner: Young People Have Opportunity
  • Young Adults on the Economy: We Need Help