Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Good Ol' Present Days

A long post, but bear with me:

This was timely, given that I recently created my first retirement plan investment portfolio, and it touches on something I’ve been saying for awhile: things are, by and large, pretty good these days. As for retirement, I’m not at all confident in the government’s ability to support me in my old age (or the appropriateness of them doing so), but I’ve got other decent options available, and planning for your own financial future is good idea no matter how much faith you have in Social Security. I love my job, although it’s not exactly what I thought I’d be doing when I was in school. Yes, I’ve been lucky (or is it karma?), but taking (and creating) opportunities is an important part of success. The point is, there seems to always be an overall tendency for people to romanticize the past and claim that things are always getting worse. Whether it’s because we want to be martyrs, or because we are ultimately pessimistic about the future, it is a feature of human nature (for many people, at least). Yet the evidence shows that so many things are actually getting better all the time (many aspects of the environment, crime, the rights of women and minorities, wealth, etc). Should we really feel all this nostalgia for the past?

Overall, how bad are things for your average well-educated young person these days? I have friends who are definitely under-employed, considering their education, while others are essentially working in the exact career position they set themselves up for. While I sometimes resent my perception of the job security available to older generations, I really wouldn’t trade places with any of them, even to get to experience the late 60’s.

Can people living in relatively expensive cities really not survive on the near-minimum wage jobs available in the service industry? From what I’ve seen (purely anecdotal, of course): yes – just not the way they want to be able to live. They want to live like yuppies, and they want to do it while working 40 hours a week making $6.50 an hour. It doesn’t add up. But they could get by well enough, through either working more or spending less on luxuries (or really, just non-necessities). I understand that there are many people that truly are struggling to get by, and couldn’t really up their work hours or decrease expenses (at least by very much). But even them, many probably have a heated apartment with decent indoor plumbing, a TV, and maybe even a car. Which are things that almost nobody had a hundred years ago. Of course, we measure our happiness largely relative to others around us, so it’s easy to see why people in these situations are unsatisfied with their lives. And therefore maybe this means nothing. But just speaking for myself: I don’t make an outstanding salary (although its decent), but I live a life abounding in riches. I’ve traveled overseas (my parents never had until very recently) and to almost every part of North America; I can afford to see live music shows almost anytime I want (providing my work schedule allows it); and I’ve got the internet, which supplies me with no end of intellectual stimulation from the comfort of my living room. My student loans are paid off. I’m glad I’m where I am. Maybe if I took off the rose-colored glasses I’m wearing today I’d see things from a different perspective, but I do have optimism for the future, both for myself and for society.

This brings around the idea of the thought experiment (I can’t remember the name of it right now) about being forced to choose a time period in which you would like to live, if you were going to be randomly assigned what your socioeconomic status was going to be (and it might be interesting to throw in that gender and race would be random as well). I would definitely pick the present day (and I think the majority of people would do the same). You’re better off today, no matter if you’re rich or poor, man or woman, black or white, etc.

All this pontification was inspired by an outstanding post by Jane Galt, responding to a piece by Laura of Apartment 11D on the difficulties she’s had balancing work (or lack of it) and kids (which admittedly I don’t have). A few of my favorite paragraphs are excerpted below:

My generation of nice upper middle class white kids was given a ferocious sense of entitlement by our parents and teachers. As long as we played by the rules we were taught in school--do your work on time, study hard, put work first--we were supposed to have wonderful jobs, terrific spouses, adorable children, a house whose tasteful bibelots and appropriately offbeat furniture all our friends could admire.

That was one way to discover that the promises the meritocracy held out to its elite students cannot always be fulfilled.

The result is that many in my generation . . . or really, the handful of my generation that went from elite school to elite school, academic honor to prestigious job . . . feel somehow that we were cheated, that we'll never have it as good as our parents.

But the fact that some of us have had to settle for jobs less lucrative or fulfilling than we expected does not mean that the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. Yes, we probably can't rely on social security, but on the other hand, it's easier than ever to save for retirement, with Uncle Sam basically giving you a 30% match on every dollar you put into your 401(k). I think the most frightening thing for many of us is the feeling that we have no safety net--that we'll end up poor and abandoned in retirement. But for most of us, it would probably be easy to save for retirement if we were willing to live like your parents did--or at least like my parents did. One television, no stereo, no VCR, no cable, one (used) car, six rooms for four people, no eating out, no cell phones, no vacations other than visiting relatives, stretching meat out with egg and bread and noodle rings, jello as a salad, turn the light off when you leave the room and get off the phone--it's long distance!

But the thing is, that even as I indulge in invidious comparisons between my apartment and the one I grew up in, and those my classmates are currently renting or buying, I have to remind myself that in so many ways I'm better off than my parents were at my age. I'll live longer (well, statistically, anyway), I have a fantastic job, and though I complain about lack of space, I have everything I need. The things I want more space for, and more money for, are incidentals that the human race lived happily without until, oh, last week. On the other hand, I have things they never dreamed of, like this blog, that enrich my life in various intangible, yet crucial, ways. Just like the song says, the good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.

She says it a lot more eloquently than I do, but any way you put it, we really should be thankful for what we’ve got. And you really should read the whole thing, and be glad that this kind of exchange of ideas is available to you.


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