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Getting Worse?

Richard Quinn  |  May 28, 2021

LEAVE IT TO ME to become entangled in Twitter “discussions.”

I’m often driven to comment on those Tweets that contend that the opportunity to get ahead in America no longer exists, and that it’s impossible for many to save money or pay off their debts.

Recently, my confrontations resulted in a 30-something—who wanted more than $50,000 in student loans forgiven—informing me that, “I am not interested in an old (@#X?) man’s point of view.” What was so offensive about my point of view? I’d mentioned working two jobs, mortgaging the house and using most of my savings to pay for my four children’s college education. My young antagonist then dismissed me as “privileged.”

This old man thinks taking responsibility has a great deal to do with economic success. I recall a news story about a married couple who decided they wouldn’t repay their student loans. They claimed they were misled about the value of their training to become phlebotomists and couldn’t find jobs. Seems they neglected to investigate that the starting salary is about $23,000 and the average salary $31,000. My obsessive self went searching—and found several job openings for phlebotomists in their area.

Frequently, I’m told things are different. Things are different for sure. More and different opportunities abound. Consider the people who took advantage of the pandemic to make money. My teenage granddaughter earned $1,200 making and selling a necklace that helps folks avoid losing their face mask.

Incredible technology allows people to earn a good living from just about anywhere in the world. It isn’t just computer whizzes who have abundant opportunities. Skilled crafts people are also highly valued. I just remodeled the kitchen at our vacation home. The electrician charged $200 an hour and the plumber $285. I’m about to paint five rooms in my house. That’ll be $10,200, please.

My favorite Tweet so far: “The days of starting in the mail room and working your way to executive are over.” This one hit a nerve because that’s exactly what I did. Over? Why? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to cope with the setbacks, broken promises or disappointments that go with the journey. My journey took more than 45 years. Hey, if you can’t wait that long, invent a new app and become a millionaire by next Thursday.

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I know corporate paternalism is long gone. My former employer has made many changes to employee benefits since I left. I don’t agree the changes were necessary, and they clearly shifted financial responsibility to employees and retirees. But I suspect the same thing could be said about the benefit changes I initiated 30 years ago, when I was working in human resources.

I wear a watch with the Mercedes logo on the face. The engraving on the back reads, “Richard D Quinn, Faithful Service, 4-30-77.” It was my father’s watch. He was a car salesman. That watch is what the company gave him at age 67 when he was told he must “retire.” No pension, no 401(k), no health benefits. My parents lived on Social Security for the rest of their lives. They lived through the Great Depression, they were leery of banks and had no interest in the stock market. I compare their life experience with my “things are different” Twitter friends. Have things really got worse?

Today, we complain about high health care costs. When I started working in 1961, there was no insurance coverage for services outside the hospital and no coverage for prescription drugs.

Talk about fair pay. Back in the good old days, my department manager was given a merit pay budget to allocate among his employees—and himself. Any guess who received the largest raise?

And opportunity? In the 1970s, I decided to look for a better job and interviewed at a different company. When I returned to the office the next day, my manager told me I wouldn’t be getting the new job. The person who had interviewed me called my manager, who told him not to hire me. Should I have been flattered? Twenty years later, I had the manager’s job.

We hear a lot about the inability to save for retirement. My contention: Virtually everyone can save and invest if they set the appropriate priorities. In January 2020, I wrote about the concept of “financial fasting” as a way to accumulate the money needed to invest. And the fact is, you don’t need much to get started as an investor. Some mutual funds and brokerage firms don’t even have required investment minimums.

No denying it, I’m old. But I firmly reject the notion that the world is so much harsher today than it was a few decades ago—and that opportunity in America retired when I did.

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.com. Before retiring in 2010, he was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
22 days ago

Richard, now this is interesting – here’s a blog post that supports your view regarding generational finances, and it’s data-driven so it has reasonable credence.

https://ofdollarsanddata.com/no-millennials-arent-poorer-than-previous-generations/
I need to retract some of my other post as a result: it seems there IS evidence that Millenials are doing as well as other age cohorts, which I really haven’t run across before. The extent to which saving may be more difficult appears to depend a lot on specific circumstances.

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
23 days ago

I’m sorry Richard, but this article is entirely anecdotal. Anyone who wants to feel vindicated in their financial achievements is going to agree with you, but there’s no data provided to indicate you’re correct, and lots of evidence pointing the other way.

I think that people making very little can sometimes save, but I think it’s going to be more difficult for most people than it was even 30 years ago when I saved over 25% of my first year’s salary of $24,600. (my own anecdotal tidbit.) Just a few data points:

To borrow (& edit) from Aparna Mathur writing for Forbes:

We know from work done by Raj Chetty and others using income to measure mobility, that absolute upward economic mobility has been declining since the 1940s. For children born in the 1940s, more than 90 percent were earning more than their parents. Today, that number has dropped to 50 percent.

The chart below (omitted) shows the average probability that a child in a particular birth cohort will attain higher education credentials than their parents. In the 1940s, the average probability was close to 70 percent. For the 1980s cohort, that number has dropped to below 45 percent.

This speaks to reduced socioeconomic mobility in the US vs it’s past and vs other countries.

Also, are things worse for blacks and hispanics than for whites and asians? Again, demonstrably yes, across a variety of financial (and many other) metrics, particularly net worth. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/disparities-in-wealth-by-race-and-ethnicity-in-the-2019-survey-of-consumer-finances-20200928.htm

The American Dream still exists, and it won’t come to you, you have to chase it. That I think we can all agree on.

Last edited 22 days ago by Roboticus Aquarius
Philip Stein
Philip Stein
25 days ago

Its common these days to hear people toss about terms like “racist hiring/promotion practices” to justify labeling perceived disparities in opportunities available to different racial groups as due to racism.

I’m reminded of the story of Ronald Read, a white man born in Vermont, who had only a high school education. He worked fixing cars at a gas station for 25 years and swept floors at a JC Penney for 17 years. Its hard to imagine anyone with a more humble background.

After Ronald Read died in 2014 at age 92, it was learned that he had a net worth of over $8 million dollars. During his lifetime, Mr. Read lived below his means and invested his savings in common stocks. I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Read didn’t attain this notable achievement solely because he enjoyed white privilege — anyone, including people of color, could do what Ronald Read did with enough patience and discipline.

You can read more about Ronald Read in Morgan Housel’s book “The Psychology of Money.”

Nick Politakis
Nick Politakis
25 days ago

I enjoyed this piece. I feel that every generation has issues they deal with and the previous generation doesn’t quite get their “issues”. I remember when I was in my 20’s I believed certain things that evolved over time. I did not want to listen to those from prior generations and discarded their wisdom. But I still turned out ok.

medhat
medhat
25 days ago

Richard, enjoyed this read as always. I find generationally, myself included, that there’s been a consistent steady march towards a shorter and shorter time horizon for gratification, financial, workplace, or otherwise, and perhaps this is exacerbated by the advent of the internet and especially social media, where “comparing yourself to the Jones’s” is no longer local, but a worldwide phenomenon. In my workplace new hires are “expecting” what amounts to essentially an automatic promotion simply due to (short) tenure alone, performance be damned. Similarly, the “slow and steady” approach to investing and compounding gains seems to take a back seat to the much more newsworthy topics of GameStop and cryptocurrency. I think it’s either Peter Lynch or Warren Buffett who cautions investors to “buy what they know”, versus “buy what everyone says is hot”.

ishabaka
ishabaka
25 days ago

The fact that people would get a college degree to become phlebotomists shows how ridiculous credentialism has become in the USA. A phlebotomist sticks in a needle in a vein, collects the blood – and that’s it. It can be learned in one day, although getting good at it takes some practice. It’s like getting a college degree to rake leaves.

Walter Abbott
Walter Abbott
26 days ago

I’ve always been amazed at how folks who practice thrift, work hard, study self-improvement, and defer instant gratification are also “lucky.”

parkslope
parkslope
25 days ago
Reply to  Walter Abbott

Those characteristics and a great deal of luck contributed to my success. In fact, if I hadn’t had the good fortune to have been raised by loving and responsible parents who instilled in me the right values I don’t know if I would have adopted the work ethic that was so important in my success. Other key factors in which luck played a key role include marrying the right person (even though it took me three tries), being in good health, and having a high level of intelligence.

mattchiavo@aol.com
mattchiavo@aol.com
26 days ago

Agree with all your points Richard. The only thing I would ask you to consider is are all your points truly realistic options for all people, particularly for people of color. Just consider becoming familiar with the vast disproportion of low paying jobs that many people of color are limited to because of racist hiring/promotion practices. Can any and every body work hard starting in the mailroom and work there way up to the higher paying roles or are some people subjected to racism and never achieve the level of corporate success you did, simply because of the color of their skin? Think about the lack of available quality mortgage loans in “redline” areas… most of those areas are heavily populated with people of color…will those people be able to “mortgage” their house like you did to send their children to college? Simply google the average or median networth of people of color vs non-people of color and/or google percent of people of color that own homes vs. non-people of color and you tell me if you still think any and everyone have the same “privilege” as you to achieve the same as you. Remember the term “privileged” doesn’t mean you or are family have vast wealth or come from vast wealth, it simply means you and your family didn’t have to fight through racism and racists practices to try to achieve wealth.

R Quinn
R Quinn
26 days ago

If it were 1960 or 1970 then equality of opportunity certainly would not be the same for all especially minorities and women too. It certainly was not in my experience back then.

However, by the time I retired in 2010, a great deal had changed, a great many opportunities created. Today I would say yes, everyone, according to their ability, can work their way out of the mail room…if mail rooms even exist.

In the final analysis, I still believe the power is with the individual. The power to seize every opportunity and to make the most of it, or not. To decide to tackle every obstacle or let it tackle them. To make life choices that lift one up or hold one back.

But to my main point. Every generation faces it’s own challenges, the 21st century is no different. And every generation has vast opportunities and I suspect the 21st century is no different.

mattchiavo@aol.com
mattchiavo@aol.com
26 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I appreciate your view. Thank you for sharing and I’m a big fan of your articles and I eagerly await your future articles. My final comment on this one however is if the stats I’m referring to regarding the disproportion of wealth, the racist hiring practices the racist mortgage lending practices, the disparity of people of color in low paying job compared to non-people of color and the disparity of people of color not in high paying jobs compared to non-people of color, if those stats were 1960’s or 1970’s stats I would agree with you. But unfortunately those stats I’m talking about are 2019 stats. So we will have to simply agree to disagree respectfully on this one.

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
24 days ago

I agree with your viewpoint and I’m trouble by the # of negative votes for your comment.

R Quinn
R Quinn
25 days ago

The statistics you mention are the result of many issues afflicting society for centuries. Unfortunately, human beings being what they are, some of those issues are never going away.

Also, while we should not tolerate blocking opportunity for anyone, the reality is that we are not all created with equal abilities, attitudes, ambition, etc. However, IMO dwelling on what is not fair now or in the past can itself be blocking ones opportunity… by simply concluding there is no chance for me.

My article was intended to demonstrate that every generation had obstacles and hardships to overcome, some more than others, some very different types of obstacles as you note.

I recall my mother telling me that when my parents married in 1942, she was required by the employer to quit her job. I remember in the 1960s a Catholic president was out of the question and forget about a black president.

When I started work in 1961 there were no women or minorities as executives, very few as managers and even less as employees. Today half the executives, board members and managers in that company are women or minorities. A woman is CEO.

I graduated high school in 1961 and half the school was minority. Did those student even though we had an equal education have the same opportunities as I did, no they did not. In 2021 that school system is virtually 100% minority, the system spends an amount per student equal to or greater than most of the high income systems in my state and yet, the student proficiency rate for math is 2%. Who is blocking opportunity and why?

Finally, as I hear complaints about student loans, I think to myself, BUT THEY GOT TO GO TO COLLEGE! They invested in their futures and now it’s up to them to make the most of it. And then I think, and they didn’t have to worry about putting their lives on hold for two years because of a military draft as so many in the past did.

We press on trying to keep opportunity thriving, but getting everyone to seize theirs is always a challenge.

Luckless Pedestrian
Luckless Pedestrian
26 days ago

All your points are valid, but when otherwise sensible people spend precious time arguing with random, insolent tyros on Twitter, perhaps things really are “getting worse.”

BTW, you’ve confused “protagonist” with “antagonist.” I assume Jonathan edits these pieces and am surprised he didn’t catch that.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
26 days ago

Thanks for catching the mistake for me. I fixed the offending word.

R Quinn
R Quinn
26 days ago

I did have to look up tyros though.

R Quinn
R Quinn
26 days ago

I’m pretty sure that’s his exit😁

R Quinn
R Quinn
26 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Meant EDIT

Charlie Warner Jr
Charlie Warner Jr
26 days ago

Great read Richard and I certainly reflect your thoughts.

“Never argue with an idiot, they will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience”. Mark Twain

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
26 days ago

Nailed it…AGAIN !!

Bob Harrison
Bob Harrison
26 days ago

Richard, keep up the great work. Your observations and advice are spot on. Hard work, persistence, and delaying gratification almost always deliver great results over time.

Bob

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