Who We Were

Jonathan Clements

MILLIONS OF RETIRED baby boomers struggle financially, and yet they don’t eat avocado toast, don’t have a daily Starbucks habit and didn’t graduate college with a degree in women’s studies.

What’s my point? In the comments section of HumbleDollar, there are two recurring themes—that young adults spend recklessly and that college is of questionable value. I understand these concerns and even share them to some extent. But I’d favor a more nuanced view.

Let me start with four points of agreement. First, I agree that college has become unaffordable for many families and that college pricing is maddeningly opaque. Second, I agree that many school systems fail to instill the basics in their students, forcing colleges to teach remedial math and English—not a great use of tuition dollars. Third, I agree that college isn’t for everybody, and that encouraging teenagers to pursue a trade often makes sense. Finally, I agree that we should encourage 20-somethings to spend less and save more.

But this is where I part ways with some HumbleDollar commenters, and it all begins with a vague recollection of who I was as a teenager and 20-something. Put it this way: There are those of us who recall acting irresponsibly—and then there are those who suffer from amnesia. That leads me to offer two perhaps unpopular opinions.

First, kids need to go away to college—for the sake of all concerned. I raised two children, and also had a hand in raising two stepchildren. College came at just the right time.

It gives teenagers a chance to learn how to fend for themselves—not just the basics like nutrition, personal hygiene and managing money, but also how to balance the demands of academic work and extra-curriculars. This is an ugly process, and it’s best if Mom and Dad don’t watch.

Even the Amish understand this. There’s the tradition of rumspringa, during which the rules are relaxed for Amish teenagers. It isn’t clear how much misbehaving goes on. I suspect it’s far less than depicted in the documentary Devil’s Playground. But I also suspect that, like the rest of us, most Amish parents realize that kids often mature more quickly if they’re left to figure it out for themselves.

College, of course, is meant to be more than an extended summer camp. When we pay six figures for those four years, we’re hoping our kids get a good education. But what does that mean? If your student is studying engineering or architecture, it’s obvious. If it’s history or English, it’s harder to connect what’s learned directly to a future paycheck. But that doesn’t mean going to college isn’t valuable.

We shouldn’t throw up our hands in horror just because students never use the knowledge they acquire during their undergraduate days. Instead, what matters is learning to work effectively and think critically. In that regard, writing papers on Weberian sociology and Wittgensteinian philosophy may not seem like preparation for the real world. But that’s how I spent my college years.

Second, today’s high spending among young adults is a sign not of excess, but of success. I recall spending virtually every dollar I earned in my teens and early 20s. All that changed when I married at age 24 and became a father at 25, and had no choice but to become super-careful about money. My hunch: Most HumbleDollar readers were also financially wayward youths.

Today, I’m a fierce advocate of saving diligently early in life, so you quickly buy yourself a sense of financial security and put yourself on the fast track to financial independence. But I’m also a realist. It takes time for young adults to develop a long-term financial view—and, in the meantime, we shouldn’t be surprised if they spend more than we did at their age.

After all, per-capita GDP climbs over time. It’s up an inflation-adjusted 49% over the past three decades. We should expect each successive generation to live a little more lavishly. This is something to celebrate, rather than clucking with disapproval at the folly of youth.

I never dreamed of taking a gap year before or after college. I’ve never leased a car. In fact, I’ve only once bought a new vehicle, and it was a Geo Metro, at the time the second-cheapest car on the market. I clean my house myself, rather than paying someone. If I order food for takeout, I almost always pick it up myself, rather than have somebody deliver to my door. I almost never get Starbucks. I like avocado toast—but I make it myself.

This is not how today’s young adults think. But who’s being foolish? I’m happy with my spending choices. I’m not really comfortable with the idea that somebody’s going to clean up my mess or bring food to my door. But I also realize that I’m not taking full advantage of the bounty offered by today’s economy—and that those who are younger may be striking a better balance than me.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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