Generational Economics: Accumulate vs. Deep Meaning

Perception of Baby Boomers (l) and Generation Y (r)

After reading Robin Lewis’ most recent post entitled, ” The New American Dream. Where Have All The Hippies Gone?” from the Robin Report,  which paints a picture of the new American dream being built (literally and figuratively) by Generation Y; the difference in attitude, values and personality between the generations became quite apparent.   According to Lewis, the Boomers, who will forever be known for their activism and drive to accumulate wealth and power have, in part, led us to where we stand economically today. He further feels that the Y generation (those born after 1981) aren’t having it and have rejected the current system for a new one that they will rebuild to mirror themselves.  This ““yellow brick road” that leads not to opulence, but to openness  and mobility, quality over quantity, back-packs over Barca-loungers, bicycles over Bentleys, minimalist homes on lease over opulent real estate with mortgages, community over self, and matters of the mind over material possessions”, says Lewis.   Although I am not inclined to disagree with his description, I find the more interesting question to be; why?   In the midst of a challenging economic time, what has shaped America’s future to value something well-made over just having a lot of average quality goods? What has allowed those just entering the work force to view the ultimate goal as “securing meaningful work” instead of ” securing enough financial freedom not to have to do something” as their parents and grandparents did and perhaps still do?  In one word: prosperity.

In reference back to the two examples mentioned above, quantity has never been a problem for Generation Y.  They have always had the benefit of more and for that matter, immediate.  Another video game comes out?  Generation Y has to have it on release day. Does it matter that the new version is essentially the same as the last but with slightly better graphics?  Nope; cause if its new, its a must-have.  One may ask where this behavior comes from. Is it nature or nurture?

Tim Kasser of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.,  published  a study in the journal of Motivation and Emotion, focused on the psychological affects of economic recession and found that “when most people go through economic recession, may become more frugal,  but they respond to moments of psychological insecurity by becoming more materialistic.”  And materialistic is what the Boomers are.  Driven by the desire to insulate themselves and their children from feeling the effects of the economic insecurity that plagued their parents, coupled with a growing economy (yes, there have been slight dips over the past 30 years, but nothing close to what is currently gripping the U.S.), Boomers bought and charged their way into huge homes, luxury cars and extremely indulged children who not only expect, but feel they deserve to have the biggest closet filled with the best clothes, get the newest version of the iPhone, and spend incredible amounts of their parents’ disposable income on hobbies and social plans.

Is it any wonder that these same individuals feel that the ultimate goal in life is “meaningful work”?  When there has been no history of being accountable or valuing and respecting money (What is that my son?  You need $150 for new jeans? Sure here is my Amex card), results (your mom and I will give you $20.00 for every “A” you get in school) or self- reliance, why would “obtain a job that will allow me to pay my bills and have a secure future” come to the mind of a Gen Y. Some argue it is because they have become disillusioned while watching the nest egg so diligently built by their parents over decades shrink at a rapid pace since the onset of the recession in 2009, and therefore do not feel that hard work and moderate saving will prevent economic vulnerability in the future.  However,  it may be something much more simple; history predicting the future.  Given that Generation Y has never experienced real economic crisis, they have the fortune to believe that “everything will be fine” (because for them, it always has) and therefore  continue with the idealism of “doing something that provides a deep meaning” over, “finding a job that will provide for me and my family financially” as the previous generation did.  Furthermore, I wonder how many Boomers will be able to draw their full share of social security if their children and grandchildren are more focused on “community” and “meaning” than on the bottom line, producing income to pay into the government.

Independent of Generation Y’s motivation to create a new paradigm that will not only reflect their values and attitudes,  but also likely alter the country both politically and economically, Boomers better hope and pray that their kids have more wisdom, foresight and restraint in creating the framework for the next fifty years than they had over the past fifty. Otherwise, let’s just all get “Made in China” tattoos on the bottom of our feet, because that is likely to be our destiny.


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