Let’s talk about wealth. When I was 15 or 16, I was sitting in English class and the teacher stood up and told everyone that the American Dream is dead. We would be the first generation that would have it worse than our parents did, she said.
I didn’t argue, though I should have. I figured I’d at least be the one to buck the trend, if what she said turned out to be right. A couple of years before, my dad had actually bothered to sit down with me at the kitchen table, candidly tell me the mistakes he’d made in life, and then he told me it didn’t look like I’d make those same mistakes. I trusted my dad’s judgment.
But when I look around today, I wonder if my English teacher might have been right. Wealth isn’t about money or possessions, after all. In that regard, she’s very wrong. There’s a high school next to one of the buildings I work in. Most of the cars in that parking lot are nicer than the cars in the parking lot for the building I work in. And there are plenty of highly paid IT professionals like me in my building.
Am I better off than my dad? Well, let’s see. In 1981 my dad decided he’d made it, so he splurged. He bought a luxury car: a Chrysler LeBaron. It wasn’t the swankiest of cars, but it was far and away the most loaded car he’d ever owned. The only features it was missing were a tape deck (not sure if Chrysler was offering that in 1981), the famous Corinthian leather, and speech synthesis (which I think they were offering that year). I thought it was a nice car.
Today, nearly 20 years later, I drive a Dodge Neon. That car has everything that 1981 LeBaron had, plus some things it didn’t. By today’s standards, it’s not a luxury car.
Ten years later, my dad bought a 1980 Chrysler Cordoba, which he let me drive most of the time. That was the swankiest car Chrysler made in 1980. Leather seats, everything adjustable… It was still awfully nice in 1991. The car my sister drives puts that Cordoba to shame. Leather seats, but these are heated. And my sister’s car isn’t a luxury car either. It’s mid-range.
I can’t quite afford the last house my dad bought. Give me a couple of years. I could afford the next-to-last house my dad bought pretty easily. I don’t see the point–I’d just fill the place with computers and books, and I’d have to drive longer to get to work. I like where I’m living now.
Compared to my dad, I’ve got it good. Real good. And my dad was no pauper. He was a successful doctor. Not a high-priced doctor like a brain surgeon, but he did fine.
This weekend, I was talking to my good friend Tom Gatermann. He was talking about a friend who’s about to marry a girl from the former Soviet Union. Her hometown is just south of Siberia. His friend was talking about living conditions there. Indoor plumbing is a luxury.
I spent a couple of weeks on a Navajo reservation in 1998 and 1999. Out there, a telephone is a luxury. Sometimes electricity is a luxury. Usually, those who go without budget so they have electricity during the hottest parts of the year, then shut it off during the mild months.
For me, budgeting involves raising or lowering the thermostat by about 5 degrees if I’m going to be gone for a few days. Or if a month looks like it might be particularly tight for some reason, I’ll move my thermostat and turn off all but one of my computers. I did that last year, around tax time. Comparatively, that’s not a big deal.
No, wealth isn’t about possessions. I learned that in New Mexico. Wealth is about gratefulness. My friends down there are much wealthier than I am. They’re grateful for just about everything they have. I take my car, my computers, my phone, my indoor plumbing, my lights… I take all of that for granted pretty much. I complain when my DSL connection isn’t working right. Meanwhile, miles away, there’s someone walking half a mile to use a neighbor’s telephone, or someone walking outside in the dead of winter to an outhouse.
My generation’s spoiled. The generation after mine is even worse. We take everything for granted. Those younger than me take everything for granted and many of them want it handed to them. And if we don’t have something we want, it’s always someone else’s fault. Eight years ago it was George Bush’s fault. Now it’s Bill Clinton’s fault, or those mean-spirited Republicans in Congress. Or maybe it’s Bill Gates’ and Larry Ellison’s and Warren Buffett’s fault, because they’ve accumulated all that money and won’t share.
My cubicle neighbor agrees. We talked about that the other day, and he asked me the same question my mom asked me last week: How do we fix it?
I remember my grandmother was grateful for everything she had, which by today’s standards, was zilch. But she never thought of herself as poor. Never. She lived through the Great Depression. People who lived through the Depression looked at things very differently.
So I told my cube neighbor and my mom the same thing: We need a good, long, hard depression. Capitalism gave us everything we ever wanted. But we changed the rules and said it wasn’t what we wanted. We don’t know what we have, and we won’t all make a pilgrimage en masse to see how great life is in Siberia. The only way for us to find out what we have is to struggle for a while.
So, was my English teacher right? Are we better off than our parents? NO.
I’m very sad to say I couldn’t prove her wrong.