I’ve spent much time of late thinking about a quote from Liz Funk, the Gen Y author of ‘Coming of Age in a Crap Economy.’ In a recent interview, Funk noted that today’s young people, who are starting their adult lives at a particularly bad time, were often raised by people who faced a similarly difficult start. Funk suggests that there’s hard-won wisdom available from the people who became adults during the ‘malaise’ era of the Carter presidency and the contracting economy of the early Reagan years.
I’m one of those people. And I think Funk is right about us, although perhaps not in the way she thinks. We children of the tail end of the baby boom have been through this. Our experience is unlike that of the rest of the boomers, and dramatically different from that of Gen X. Our experience is like yours, Gen Y. And we know something you should know — the financial crisis could be the best thing that ever happened to you. And if you, Gen Y, remember this, then you could be the best thing that ever happened to the country.
“Parents can be an enormous source of support,” Funk told USNews & World Report. “If your parents were born in the late ’50s or early ’60s, they graduated right into a recession, too.”
I was born in 1959. In my sophomore year of high school, the oil crisis hit. During the next 10 years, things spiraled out of control. While I was in college, we had the energy crisis. By the time I graduated, recession was the norm, the financial system was reeling from the Savings and Loan crisis, and we’d come to accept double-digit unemployment and an inflation rate that eventually hit 13.5 percent. In places like New York City, where I lived, crime was soaring and businesses were fleeing. It was, by any measure, a disastrous time to start out.
Strangely, I don’t think I noted the similarities between my early adult years and today’s economic situation until I read Funk’s quote. I suspect that’s because I don’t have any feel-good stories about how my peers rose above their difficult start. Rather, an extraordinarily large percentage of the folks I grew up with continue to struggle financially.
We never caught up with the older boomers. Our early jobs, when we could find them, paid awful. Our early debt, particularly student loans, were at shockingly high interest rates. Things began to improve economically by the mid-80s, but then the AIDS crisis hit. Even today I can’t tell you what it was like to watch as what seemed like every smart and talented young person I knew entered that nightmarish descent — Kaposi’s, hospitalizations, premature aging and then death. At the time of our lives when we should have been starting families, my peers and I wound up obsessing over death. We attended funerals, not baptisms. We made AIDS quilts, not baby blankets.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that things seemed “OK” again. There were AIDS drugs. Everyone in the country had seemingly entered the recovery movement. It looked like we would live. And the nation was entering a growth stage. There were new, tech-driven industries everywhere and they needed new, technologically sophisticated workers. That’s the world that Gen X stepped into. But by then my peers were in their mid-30s — sort of old to land those cool, new, entry-level jobs with lots of opportunity and room for growth.
Wait for me!
So my peers and I spent the 90s and 00s playing catch up. There’s nothing wrong with that. Although it was, in many ways and for many of us, sort of tough. Lots of people found themselves having to relearn their craft, to restart their careers over and over again, to return to school, etc. I was luckier than most. I developed an early interest in the new, digital methods of journalism. My career prospered. And I made good money by starting a consulting company in which I taught others what I was learning.
Yet looking back, I’d say that many of us made a fundamental mistake during those catch-up years — we played a game that we didn’t believe in.
We knew, just as Gen Y knows today, that the game is rigged. There was a madness about the dotcom era, the Clinton presidency and the Bush years. And my peers and I, desperate to have wealth and ease, averted our eyes from it. We worked as hard as we could, started our families much later than our parents had, and we invested. We watched CNBC endlessly. We day-traded at work, not at home, because we were never not at work. But always, in the back of minds, there was a voice that told us we were acting crazy.
And that voice, strangely enough, was from a long-forgotten speech by an ex-president we’d all learned to scoff at as a new millennium dawned — Jimmy Carter.
Our greatest ex-President
In July of 1979, just weeks before I was to start my senior year of college, then-president Jimmy Carter addressed the nation. It was clear to Carter, as it was to all of us, that the country was facing extraordinary difficulties. Everyone had an opinion about what to do. And there was a considerable lack of civility in how Americans discussed those opinions. We were a polarized people. We blamed each other for our troubles. We blamed outsiders and foreigners. We blamed all day long.
Then the president got on television and told us that we were the problem:
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” he said. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
The president’s address came to be known as the “malaise” speech, although he never used that word. More accurately, historians call it the “Crisis of Confidence” speech.
Kevin Mattson, wrote a book called “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?”, which looked at the underlying themes of Carter’s speech. In a 2009 interview with NPR, Mattson describes the speech as a call to morality. “Jimmy Carter had grown increasingly convinced that Americans had to face up to the energy crisis, but they only could do this if they faced up to the crisis in their own values,” Mattson said. Carter called us toward reflection, civic sacrifice and moral vision. “Carter goes out there and he essentially condemns the American way of life. He says our consumerism, our materialism have really gotten in the way.”
The reaction to the speech was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, according to Mattson. Certainly that’s my memory of it. Everyone I knew — other students, my parents, my coworkers, neighbors, everyone — felt that Carter was right. I don’t remember anything about the policy decisions he announced that night: import quotas and such. Nor do I remember anyone talking about such things in the days afterward. The speech wasn’t about policy. It was about us.
Mattson says Carter lost the initiative fairly quickly. The early enthusiasm for the speech faded, and the nation began to look anywhere other than in the mirror for an answer. That’s true, I suppose. Carter was not re-elected. And he quickly became a sort of presidential joke.
But this too is true: That speech resonated with my generation for many years. When we graduated college — amid recession, endless crisis, AIDS and lowered expectations — we embraced the idea of a value-driven life. The first “real” job that most of my friends had were in nonprofits, advocacy groups and religious organizations. My first great love was a woman who moved to Central America to work with the survivors of the death squads. My second great love was a woman who worked with autistic teenagers. I worked with mentally retarded adults for years before heading to grad school in journalism. I had buddies who worked with the homeless, buddies who started churches, buddies who cared for the elderly and buddies who fed the poor.
And we all made those AIDS quilts.
But then something happened. Suddenly and unexpectedly, there was money to be made. The economy got stronger, waved a few dollars in front of us, and we chased them through the dotcom era, the house-flipping crazies, and the day-trading sickness all the way to securitized mortgages and the near-collapse of the global economy. Does it seem like I exaggerate? Here’s a wacky little statistic for you: the five wealthiest friends I have all started their adult lives working with children … and then started second careers on Wall Street.
Which raises the question: what happened to us?
Here’s the answer: we forgot. When we were no longer young, we forgot what Carter had told us. We fell in love with consumption, just as our predecessors and the generation after us did. We forgot what we once knew to be true in our very bones, what the president of the United States, for god’s sake, told us as we began our adult lives, “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Past is prologue
Nowadays, I write for a living. In fact, I write about money, banking, the financial crisis and the future. In upcoming columns I’ll write about some of the things that my generation knew, and then forgot, about success, money and meaning. Perhaps Liz Funk is right that people my age have something of value to share about such things. We’ll see.
In the meantime, let me say this as directly and clearly as I can to any young person who happens to read this: in the wake of the financial crisis, you’ve learned much about our financial system. No doubt, much of it disappoints you. Things are not as they should be, not as you wish them to be. You’ve also learned what Carter tried to teach us before you were born — the root of the problem is us. The crisis is one of values, of morality, of truth.
So now that you know this, I offer to you the only advice you will ever need: don’t forget it.