Generation gap: Longing for a simpler time I never knew

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“Back in my day …”

It’s an obnoxious cliche most often attributed to older people reminiscing of the days of their youth when things were better, cheaper, simpler, purer, or whateverer.

But as I lay awake last night thinking about my life, my situation, and what I know of my husband and my friends’ situations, I came to a conclusion: It was better back in their day.

Neither my parents, nor I were particularly focused in our 20s. My parents were Baby Boomers, and thus, hippies. They moved to San Francisco in the 1970s, their hair was long and crazy, they protested Vietnam. While my mother did get a college degree – an R.N. – and my father eventually earned an LPN (a lower-level nursing certification), they had many wild parties, and, I’m sure, did many things they haven’t told me about. The things they have told me about are enough to assure me they had a good time.

After all, I am the result of one of those crazy parties.

I can’t say my focus was much better as a 20-something (whose is, really?). I did manage to get two college degrees including a masters, and even a job in my field. But I also moved to California for a time, had some fun, even got into a little trouble of my own. I didn’t go as wild as my parents, I don’t think, but I’m guilty of a variety of things I won’t admit to here (ask me after deadline and few martinis, and I’ll tell all).

But the big difference I can see is that my generation is making the same choices as our parents, and is being punished. Big time.

Here’s my take:

Go to college, get a job

Baby Boomers – cheap tuition (neither of my parents had college debt until my father returned to school in his 40s), nearly guaranteed a job after graduation (both my parents have always worked in their field), some debt, but salaries usually high enough to pay it off.

Gen Xers – steadily rising tuition, no guarantee of a job after graduation (I worked for Starbucks, the Red Cross, an insurance company and an engineering firm after college, none of which was even remotely close to what I studied in school), huge debt (I owe $50,000 for two degrees) and salaries that barely pay the bills.

Buy a house

Baby Boomers – cheap land available (my dad paid $1,500 for the property he owns that’s now worth $250,000), houses were reasonably priced (my mother’s house is almost paid off), loans were readily available, equity that set many of them up for retirement.

Gen Xers – bought at the height of the market using adjustable rate mortgages without really understanding what that meant, and watched the promised “equity” disappear in 2009, or got trapped in a house worth less than they owe (my current dilemma), or there are so many foreclosures nearby that if you want to sell instead of walking away, there aren’t any buyers because they can’t get loans (also a situation very familiar to me).

Retire

Baby Boomers – most jobs came with retirement plans, 401Ks or IRAs, many companies matched contributions, Social Security will supplement many of their retirement plans, home equity may help others.

Gen Xers – some of us (several people close to me) have never had a company offer them retirement benefits, and matching contributions have all but disappeared. I know people over 40 with no retirement savings at all. We have no equity in our homes. Relying on Social Security seems like it should be the butt of a joke (I’m sure it is).

All in all, we’re worse off than our parents with some exceptions. I do have a friend who’s a professional accountant. She seems to have fared pretty well through all this.

But for the rest of us, who didn’t study finance, who don’t have the time or energy after long days to study the fine print when one student loan company buys out another student loan company, buys your loan, sends you 100 letters in two months, then charges you for sending your payment to the wrong company, and charges you a ridiculous interest rate that should be illegal but isn’t (not a hypothetical example), I think we’re stuck with this.

And I think it’s time to stop making the same decisions as our parents. The American dream has to change. Right now, my dream is to be able to rent a small apartment with my husband, have a little extra money to save for retirement that we might be able to enjoy in our 80s, and be able to have a nice meal now and again.

In other words, those “simpler times” our parents always reminisce about.

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