Saturday, January 31, 2009

This is what being an adult means to my generation.

Every day when I drive to work, the last thing I hear is NPR's financial report: how Wall Street is doing, how many jobs are being lost, which companies are failing or succeeding. It's not easy to listen to, and sometimes I just have to switch it off. I see the headlines reflected in my own life: colleagues, friends and family struggling with money matters. But more than that, struggling to gain acceptance of what is happening to our world, trying to get ahead, trying to get a piece of the American dream.

My generation--by that I mean we in our mid- to late-twenties--fall in between Generation X and Generation E. The grunge generation and the wired generation. We grew up with babysitters who wore bright colors and legwarmers, and we got the internet when we were in high school. Our world was surrounded by economic prosperity. Cocooned by it, you could almost say. Buffered by security and having enough. Not so much that extravagant lifestyles were within reach, but enough. Your parents didn't fight and worry about money or lose their jobs. If your boss didn't give you a weekend off from your gig at McDonald's, you could just quit and get another part-time job across town. There was enough.

All that has changed, and suddenly money is tight, tighter than we've ever seen. For the first time, we've had to make tough decisions about our lifestyles. I've heard it so much lately: when does this get easier? Sure, your first job out of college might not pay much, but surely by my mid-twenties I'll be getting a promotion, buying a proper car, contemplating a house...banking on the future. At twenty-two, twenty-three, you're not thinking about security, you're barely an adult, for heaven's sake. But now we're ready to be adults, we're ready for those grown-up responsibilities. Houses, cars, families. Instead we're worrying about finding jobs to pay off student loans, living with roommates, still existing on our college diets of ramen and Campbell's. We're so consumed with trying to make ends meet that there's no time, no money to save. A downpayment on a house? Try deciding between birth control and gas money.

I'm not sure why it's so hard. Is it because we were raised with that comfortable feeling of security, never had to scrimp to achieve what we wanted? Is it because we bought into the idea that life had a predictable cycle, that even those of us who are the most free spirited suddenly feel the urge to nest--but we cannot? When does it get easier? If we could only say: one more year, and then we'll have money in the bank, we can buy decent furniture, eat non-generic food, take that trip. But there's no end in sight. When does it get easier? When do we get to grow up? To feel like we've successfully completed that transition?

I worry that the current economic crisis will mark my generation, make us cautious and sensitive, in much the same way that the Greatest Generation emerged from the Depression with the urge to save and conserve as much as possible. Will this be a bad thing? Not necessarily. But it may retard my generation's full potential: instead of changing the world, we may be the generation who sires it, warning our children of the dangers of extravagance. Husband your resources, we will tell them, be creative and clever, but don't forget that it could all change in a minute. We might grow bitter and jaded, unable to optimistic about the future, unable to commit to anything long term, convinced that a thirty-year mortgage is just an invitation for disaster.

These feelings have probably always existed in new adults. When does it get easier? I'm sure everyone's asked them self that question. It's only magnified by the current economic meltdown. The truth is, it feels like it may never get easier, and that is terrifying to contemplate. We may miss out--that is what is scary. The cycles of life could pass us by as we worry about our day to day existence. When is it our turn? Where are our families, our houses, our American Dreams? When do we get to become adults? When do we get to stop worrying and start living? When will it get easier?