As a kid I was taught to believe that any boy could grow up to be president—and any girl could grow up to be that president’s mistress. Don’t hit me; that’s the America where I grew up. To make any sense of that, it helps to recall that just a hundred years ago, women were excluded from voting in U.S. elections—and they weren’t the only ones. Incredible. It also helps to reflect that, following 1920, quite a few baby women grew up to prove that a woman’s worth does not end in the House but extends to the Senate (and the Courthouse, and the Statehouse). That said, women in the U.S. still make considerable less than men who do the same work, so…
From just after the second world war to roughly the start of the Second Gulf War (with short breaks for mild to medium recessions), American children were taught to believe they could have it all—or certainly a large part of it—as wage earners in the planet’s largest economic middle class.* These days children are taught to believe they’ll be lucky to get a job that pays enough to afford food, housing and transportation.
This scenario is complicated by the fact that on a global scale our kids are lucky—or fortunate if you prefer...or blessed. All children are born poor. We tumble into this space empty-handed. Our parents either do or don’t have the resources to support us comfortably. There’s a range of opinion about what’s comfortable. In a recent election cycle, $250,000 a year was identified by some as scraping by, and $7.25 an hour was declared to be an exorbitant wage. Both of these cannot be true (and in fact I’m reasonably sure neither is). Setting that aside for the moment, it’s probably fair to say that compared to most people who ever lived, we and our offspring were born into relative abundance. Most earthlings have never expected to own the roof that sheltered them nor travel in anything like their own private automobile. But things have been somewhat different on the continent I call home.
For most of the last century, North Americans surfed the global economy like long board riders—wiping out in the 1930s, then catching a succession of big waves in nearly every decade since. The first edition of this book was written as Wall Street dragged itself to the beach after a bone-crunching face plant. As I write today, the financial industry celebrates a banner year reflected in a Dow Jones average that climbed past 16,000. Who knows? As you read this the Dow may have passed 20,000. Or it may have retreated to 8,000. What seems clear is that another set of waves is always forming, then breaking.
When the U.S. economy tanked in 1987, we heard dire predictions about our children’s prospects. They would be the first generation of Americans who failed to improve their lives compared to the generation before them. Many Xers coming of age in that period took it to heart. And it all felt very true for about five years. Then the U.S. economy took off like Moody’s Goose and almost everyone was better off, at least in the short run.
Short-run thinking has long-run results. If we teach children to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they may die, there’s a fair chance they’ll grow up fat, drunk, and surprised to be alive. At which point they’ll have to figure out how to pay for the rest of the lean, sober years ahead. If we teach kids spartan frugality because the wolf is at the door, they may grow up stingy and afraid, waiting for the next depression, stockpiling food and weapons in vintage fallout shelters because they’re convinced the next crash will make the last one look like a short paycheck. But who really knows?
Mainly, I think we teach our children almost nothing about economics and finance. By default they tend to learn their economic lives are none of their business. They learn that market forces they can’t hope to understand control all our destinies. So why bother?
There’s a note of realism in that. Life may spin out of control; things may get worse before they get better. Things could even get worse before they get much, much worse.
The trouble is, mixed with that realism is a note of fatalism that suggests there is no value to hard, intelligent work. Youngsters who believe that are in for a rough ride.
Recalling how he built his fortune from a $300 hot dog stand, Carl Karcher said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” At the time, the Carl in Carl’s jr. restaurants, was swamped by several million dollars in personal debt after fending off a hostile takeover. But—get this—in his 70s, he was busy lining up for the next wave of his company’s fortune (Mr. Karcher was never the retiring type).
Today, a good number of 20- and 30-something Americans are building fortunes the same way Carl Karcher did: by tireless effort and enlightened trial and error—luck derived from hard work.
Slackers? I think not. In the 1990s some of the most spectacular business funding successes in history were propelled by the work of men and women not yet 30 years old. And the trend followed them into the new century as young men and women generate extraordinary value in ways that shock the adults who wrote them off as teenagers. Someone forgot to tell these hard working people they couldn’t make it. Or perhaps for some reason they ignored the message.
I no longer believe any boy can grow up to be president (or make it to the NBA, or win the world series of poker, or write the next great novel or design the next great mousetrap or widget). I do believe this:
If you think you can, you might.
If you think you can’t, you won’t.
It is senseless to make false guarantees of over-the-top success and prosperity to our children. By the same token, why communicate a narrative of hopelessness? If we convince kids they can’t, they won’t.
Why go out of our way to tame their wild bright dreams?
— from Raising Adults
* Those dates don't mark anything other than cultural expectations—income to the U.S. economic middle class began to fade around 1980 and has not recovered at this writing. See this Pew Social Trends report, for example.
** The tide has turned at least twice since I wrote that paragraph. The present surge in the stock markets seems to be good for wealthy people without doing much to improve the lives of working folks—a point the billionaire Warren Buffett drove home to CBS anchors Charlie Rose and Lara Logan: “We were promised that a rising tide would lift all boats. A rising tide has lifted all yachts. If you're going to talk about shared sacrifice, we haven't had an ounce of shared sacrifice from the very rich.” — Person to Person, CBS Television, 02.09.12