For the last 150 years or so, parents of each generation have had the simple goal of providing a better quality of life for their children than they experienced. The millennials are the first generation in this modern era in which the majority of Americans expect they will have a lower quality of life than the generation that preceded them.
Suicide has surged to the highest level in nearly 30 years, and between 1988 and 2008, America experienced a 400% increase in the use of antidepressants. Children are now being raised in daycare, by strangers, and by their electronic devices more than by their actual parents.
In an age where young people experience being “triggered” and needing “safe spaces,” and when century-old confederate monuments are now being branded as hateful and being torn down, someone has to ask, What on earth is going on? Throughout history, we have always experienced times where there were great periods of change, but we are perhaps experiencing some of the biggest changes today. In addition to evolving technology and differing attitudes, the past 50 years also created and separated the richest and the poorest generations in American history. This generational wealth gap will be fueling most of the changes in America driving forward, as well as most of the discussion in this book.
I grew up in what most would call an upper middle class family. When I was young, both my father and mother worked full-time jobs, and then later, my father became the sole income provider. Every year my parents and grandparents would go on lavish vacations to exotic destinations where they would spend a week enjoying an amazing experience. Almost weekly, my parents would dine at high quality restaurants, buy expensive jewelry and live a relatively grandiose lifestyle. I was programmed along with millions of other millennials that if I went to college and worked hard, this would be my life too. Six years removed from college at the age of 29, I had never been on a vacation, and I still considered In-N-Out a high quality dining establishment. When my parents were 29, they already owned their first house.
Unfortunately, in most discussions about generations, many of us receive only the viewpoints of older people who are generally more financially established and are the primary consumers of luxury services in America. Business owners and the media are more prone to represent only these consumers, limiting their focus on their most profitable customers. When you see millennials getting upset about the unequal distribution of wealth, this is one of the reasons why. I aim to provide a view from their side.
I graduated college in 2012 with a four-year liberal arts degree in business administration from what was said to be one of the top 25 business schools in America. Truth was, I never wanted to go to college, but like many young people in America, I endured significant pressure from just about everyone. How many times in your life have you seen a TV commercial telling you not to go to college? Like many, I was told that if I didn’t get a college degree, I would never amount to much of anything. The plan was that I would go to college, make tons of money, and live happily ever after in a mansion overlooking the beach. At least, this was what the commercials, the college itself, and my parents suggested would be the reality.
My first job out of college started as an unpaid internship, even though I had already had an unpaid internship during my senior year of college. This would eventually turn into a minimum wage job. I commuted over two hours a day to work at a company where I acted as broker support and made retirement packages for people who were retiring from fortune 500 companies. While I was poor as hell, the brokers I was servicing were making a seven-figure incomes.
After almost a year of this, I got a job that I thought would be heaven-sent. Less than a week after I arrived, I received a pink slip for corporate layoffs that would affect over 7,000 people. For the next few years I bounced around between different jobs, working for temp agencies and contract companies, feeling like I was going nowhere. I realized I wasn’t alone as I saw many people I knew were in similar situations.
Chances are if you’re a millennial, you’ve been struggling. If you’ve been struggling, you’ve probably heard the story. You know, the one told by middle-aged people. The story generally starts with the storyteller telling you about a time 50 years ago when they came to America on a leaky boat with only $50 in their pocket. The story eventually ends after an hour of drama and reaches the conclusion that you’re struggling because you haven’t worked hard enough. These same people make comments about how expensive milk has become when they walk into a supermarket. They act so surprised that milk is now $4, as if it just tripled in price in the last few days. With inflation slowly eroding away the purchasing power of the dollar, many people simply don’t see the changes in their everyday life. Most of the older generations simply refuse to acknowledge the amazing opportunities and wealth that their generation experienced and that times have changed drastically in the last several decades.
As a member of a newer and more troubled generation I am often deep in thought about one question. What is the American dream, and how has it changed? Is it the opportunity for prosperity, success or freedom? Can anything be achieved through hard work, regardless of birth circumstances? Everyone is going to have a somewhat different answer to what the American dream is. My dream is to own a house, and not have a mortgage. However, in today’s economy, is it even possible for a millennial to buy a house and own it outright? In the 50s and 60s one person working as a fry cook made enough money to afford rent, and a man with a decent job could support a stay-at-home wife and a child. Why has owning a house or renting become such a challenge for millennials when it was so easy for previous generations?
At the heart of modern America are the two largest and most influential generations in society. Ironically these two generations are at different times in their lives and have drastically different views and opinions. It is important to understand these different generations, as they are ultimately playing tug of war to shape the future of America. I am talking about the baby boomers and the millennials.
The baby boomers were a product of one of the hardest working generations in history. This generation that preceded them was known as The Silent Generation. The Silent Generation was comprised of individuals born between 1928 and 1946. Members of this generation typically worked far in excess of 40 hours a week, were not paid overtime, and often found themselves in poor quality factory conditions. It wasn’t until 1940 when congress ratified the Fair Labor Standards Act, under which workweeks would be reduced to 40 hours and employers would be required to pay overtime to employees who worked more than 44 hours a week. It was ultimately The Silent Generation or the parents of the baby boomers who built some of the greatest buildings and created some of the strongest lasting effects on society in the United States.
Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 were unique in the fact that unlike many of the previous generations, they did not grow up in a time of great turbulence or financial difficulty. There was no life changing recession like the one that occurred in 1929. The economy was thriving and WWI and WWII were already over. The United States held its final military draft in 1973 for the Vietnam War, in which few baby boomers would see the battlefield. For the majority of the baby boomers, the largest challenge they would face was the oil crisis in the 1970s. While their youth years may have been challenging like that of every other generation, they received more support and financial advantages in comparison to generations preceding and succeeding them.
One advantage the baby boomers experienced was a better labor market and fewer job requirements. Many baby boomers generally worked one or several jobs in their lifetime and received a gold watch after 35 to 40 years of service. Millennials are struggling to find a job that lasts 1 or 2 years. For members of newer generations, working more than ten years at the same place today is almost unheard of.
In today’s labor market, many people have become thankful to just have a job, and thus do not engage in negotiation of wages or move to other companies. This is leading to many younger workers being exploited and deliberately kept at low wages. In addition, there are greater barriers to entry for millennials seeking high quality jobs in comparison to what previous generations needed to go through. My father became a fish and game warden in the 1970s with a high school degree. Today this position generally requires an associate degree in natural resource science or criminal justice.
Another advantage baby boomers experienced was the explosive growth of the stock market. Their generation witnessed the Dow Jones Industrial Average increase from approximately 200 in 1950 to almost 30,000 in 2019, a growth of 1500x. For those who chose to invest, this was life changing.
Many members of the baby boomers and the silent generation were able to buy houses at a young age and experienced astronomical capital gains on their property. My grandparents bought a house in San Francisco in the early 1970s for less than $25,000. The average person in 1970 made roughly $6,200 a year. If we excluded taxes and said that someone could save half their income, a single person could afford to pay off a mortgage in eight years. Today the house that my grandparents bought is worth approximately $900,000. A person today would need to make over $220,000 per year to pay off that mortgage in eight years. A millennial is unlikely to earn the $220,000 income needed to buy what their grandparents bought for a normal $6,200 middle class income. Is it realistic to think that millennials will see this same appreciation in housing prices? How did this real estate price boom happen?
While for many decades America was seen as the land of opportunity, with today’s debt we risk moving closer towards a caste system like that of India where the class you are born into is the class you stay in your entire life. Younger people are becoming increasingly reliant on their parents and grandparents to help them pay off college debt, and housing they could not afford.
Many angry millennials only see one side of the coin when looking at wealthy Americans. To them, the rich are bloodsucking leeches who have made their money by screwing over young people or foreigners. They do not see these people as those who have created great products, or provide an excellent service through hard work, dedication, and education. The reality is, most of these millennials were prey of higher education and bank loan systems that put them into such financial misery that these feelings are not surprising. In today’s economy we are seeing a compression of companies in industries and the rise of powerful oligopolies that have a tight stranglehold over the prices of many everyday needs.