Are Millenials Entitled, Or Just Afraid To Talk About Money?

In a hesitant description of a childhood between two socioeconomic brackets, Claire explains the reality of knowing where you come from: “My father has always lived on the edge as far as money goes, and that hasn’t changed as I’ve gotten older. He had a ‘hands-on’ approach to teaching me life skills, so to speak, and one of the things he liked to do was make me fill out his checkbook for him when I was in elementary school. That’s when I learned just how little money we had from week to week. It was a really scary thing to realize. Later, when I was in junior high, my mom married a man who was wealthier than we were. It made me feel like I was always ‘passing’ as well-off at school, until some kind of situation would arise that would remind me of my place.”

______

Close your eyes and throw a dart at a newspaper. Open up a magazine. Flip to any news channel. You will hit at least one piece about this generation’s heightened expectations about what life should give them: a generous salary, a job that is somewhere just above entry-level (come on, what did we go to college for?), the option to buy a house should we want one (though we likely don’t), and the freedom to move around. We want it all, apparently, and couldn’t be more clear about our disappointment in life’s failure to provide that for us. And one of the more defining lines of reasoning for this generation’s often-crippling sense of entitlement and self-interest is that we were raised on everything. Apparently, we were given piano lessons, ballet classes, after-school tutors, French lessons, and parents who would stop at nothing to ensure that we were special. But speaking personally, and I believe for many more of us than might readily admit, few things could be more foreign.

When I was a kid, my family needed help. My mom and dad, two kids in their twenties, were finishing their degree and building their business, respectively, and aid from the government to get on our feet was something we were grateful for. Our neighborhood, though humble, was by no means unlivable, and there was a vibrant sense of community — emphasized undoubtedly by the fact that we all knew how hard we had to work. And though I was young — perhaps too young to really understand the idea of needing help with bills — I was aware that we were different. At my magnet school across the city, mostly populated with kids from wealthier suburbs, I felt a palpable divide. There were two sides of life to be experienced, and I was probably on the wrong one.

As my parents grew their business and built their life together, as we moved into bigger and better homes in more desirable zip codes, I began to see life in a different way. Little by little, things that once seemed inordinately posh to me — travel, holiday vacations, new cars — became a part of our lives. There was that different side of life that I’d always heard about and been peripherally exposed to, and now I was living it. To have an overfull kitchen, a plush bedroom, new clothes bursting from my closet — it seemed a life that I had taken by sleight of hand, that I hadn’t really grown into. And as I was surrounded by more and more privilege, it became apparent to me that so many of the things that seemed nearly miraculous were commonplace for others, even mundane. A life of comfort and security — something so many cannot even imagine — was considered a given for many of my new friends.

Yet, somehow, when this generation’s collective childhood is referred to, there is an overreaching sense of privilege and access that we were all supposed to have had, that is now leading us to this sense of entitlement and deserving uniqueness — and yet I have serious doubts that such an upbringing was the case for the majority, let alone universal. In fact, the same embarrassment that kids from the wrong side of the city felt growing up — the ones with the hand-me-down clothes and maybe not quite enough to eat in their lunchbox — is still palpable in young adulthood. This need to “fake it” in some way, to pretend that we all came from a certain background, one that trained us and gave us the pedigree for a life of comfort and status, is as much about shame as it is about ego. In asking some of my readers about their experiences of growing up with less (though not necessarily not enough), I found that one of the most pervasive sentiments was this one of having to pretend — around coworkers, around strangers, even around their friends today.

Rachel, who grew up in a “frugal” home but was often surrounded by wealth and privilege in the elite world of horseback riding, was always keenly aware of her place in things: “To say we were rich is a half-hearted lie. To say we were poor is also a half-hearted lie. And to say we were middle-class just doesn’t seem to fit, either. Being in the horse world I was surrounded by wealth you can only imagine. To them, we were always the poor ones.”

This awareness of money, and what it means — where it places you — seems to be one of the more defining points of growing up with less. For many of the people I spoke with, it wasn’t until they were in their teens and even twenties that they realized some of their classmates and friends didn’t know what money really was, at least not in the parental sense. And this hyper-awareness of what can be afforded carried well into adulthood. For Mike, a man who built his career from nothing, with no formal education, and from a poor family, this sense of budgeting is a point of pride: “There’s a certain matter of adjusting your expectations of life to suit your reality. Don’t expect steak if you can only afford beans. Don’t look at a bill as something that will bury you. Look at it as a chance to prove to someone (even if it’s just the data entry person that enters your check into the system) that you can complete something.”

______

It doesn’t take a finger on the pulse of income disparity in this country to understand that no one, no child or adult, wants to admit that they have less than those around us. In suburban America, in the schools and neighborhood events and McMansions and expansive green lawns that define childhood for so many (and the cruel classmates of many others), there is a certain expectation that things are taken care of. Admitting that you couldn’t afford something, that you went without something, or that something was just out of reach, meant that you were to be pitied. Children, in a less-refined parroting of their parents, are quick to point out someone with holes in their shoes or an inability to attend a pricy school trip. And in story after story that I received, there was a constant theme of blending in, becoming invisible as an alternative to sticking out as the poor kid, a wounded gazelle ready for the lions.

The people I spoke to referenced their inability to tell anyone about the way they grew up, even today. They admit to nodding along to stories of being lavished with attention, programs, and access. Of course we all went to that sleepaway camp. Of course we all had ballet lessons. Of course we got that new toy car to drive around the block in. Who didn’t? It’s easier to fit into the description of our generation as an army of Special Snowflakes who wanted for nothing than to oust ourselves as the ones who worried about dinner that night, or whether the car would be working.

Which isn’t to say that growing up without luxury was a bad thing. Many people wrote fondly to me about not having much in the way of material goods, but feeling a deep connection to family, to time spent together. Jessica writes, “I don’t remember ever thinking about clothes I needed, because they didn’t instill in my young self the sense that it’s important to track and emulate the latest styles. We had enough toys (you might describe them as well-loved — I still have a doll in a box somewhere that ‘broke its leg’ that my dad gave a duct tape ‘cast’).”

Chris muses about his own upbringing, “I never had a gaming system, not even the original Nintendo. So when I went over to my friends’ places, my inexperience would manifest itself in losing streaks of amazing lengths. And we never had cable. So references to shows on Nickelodeon, MTV, and VH1 went over my head. We went to movies only rarely. What did I do instead? My mom took us on picnics and to the library. I played outside. I read a lot. I developed a different set of cultural references. And in the end, that hasn’t been so bad.”

Though the degrees of want which the people I spoke to experienced varied widely, there was a consistent sense of being helped, encouraged, and taught important lessons — in financially feasible ways. (Private lessons and tutors may have been out, but that doesn’t stop a parent from helping with homework.) But the attention on how “unique” we were may have simply been a luxury our families couldn’t quite invest in. We were encouraged to do things like get a job as soon as we came of age (many spoke of sweeping floors and delivering papers as soon as they turned 12 or 13, and helping the family out with weekly expenses). We were to save every penny and put it towards our future, to focus as much as possible on school and to make something of ourselves through hard work. We were taught that no job, no well-earned day’s pay, was beneath us.

These lessons, though far less glamorous, were ones that needed to be imparted on children of low income. We had to understand that the path to financial comfort and professional success is hard-wrought, and often incrementally unfulfilling. Just as our parents would work, step by step, to make something of themselves before our eyes, we would be expected to do the same thing. And when we were looked at strangely for not having the laundry list of activities our parents put us in to cultivate our certain genius, we knew it was because we were poor. We were poor, and thus our worth would have to be proved on our own. We weren’t going to get access to many of these amazing opportunities, and it was something we would have to construct for ourselves.

Yet even when such success and comfort was achieved, change in income can come swiftly and erase any foothold that may have been made in life. For Zuha, whose father lost his good job after the dot-com bubble burst, this couldn’t have been more clear: “Relating to money, one of the worst things my family experienced was foreclosure. I loved our house. It was the one stable thing in my entire life. It was always there. It was small. I could close my eyes and navigate through the entire place without bumping into anything. I knew how many steps it took to get from my room to the kitchen. I loved all the rose bushes that surrounded the perimeter of it. My family currently rents a house now. We’ve lived in it for almost five years, but I still don’t feel like it’s ours.”

_____

When I put the call out for stories and experiences, I got many people who, though not ready to reveal their family’s struggles with money — even under a pseudonym — were excited to see lower-income childhoods being talked about. There is a narrative, whether we realize it or not, going on amongst our generation, that praises a certain ease with money. Even shows about young adults struggling with money often reference a very plush family background and being “cut off” from a steady stream of accessible income. There are money problems, but not dangerous ones. The family might not be millionaires, but the kids don’t want for anything. Any mention of being “broke” is one that can be resolved in a call to dad, or a two-episode arch maximum. We write, often without realizing it, from a position of access and experience that, for many, is unimaginable. And the constant barrage of expectations about what money should and should not mean to us — the degree to which it is acceptable to be poor — leaves many feeling as though real problems with money, especially those we were raised in and thus can feel defined by, are not to be spoken about.

One need look no further than this generation’s relationship with debt to see the degree to which we are removed from the consequences of money. For many of us, taking out tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars that we’re entirely unsure of how to repay, seems a consequence of living a life normally. Our parents, if they did dissuade us, certainly didn’t prevent it from happening. We know few people who don’t owe money somewhere, and who aren’t living perpetually in the negative, no matter what our checking accounts might say. And what is more disturbing than the acquisition of debt itself is the nonchalance with which we live with it. Debt is now a constant, something not to be discussed, and something that certainly doesn’t effect our socioeconomic status — we still consider ourselves fairly well-off, even with a fraction of a percentage of what we owe securely in the bank. This utter blindness to money coupled with the pressure to not discuss our economic shortcomings leaves a generation completely removed from its own description of itself.

It’s hard not to wonder how many of us exist day-to-day with an entire secret life of money problems behind them, leering over their shoulder as they watch fairy-tale versions of neediness on the shows they illegally download. How many of us live with a thin veneer of complaint about how, “Oh, everything is so expensive” while failing to acknowledge the mountains of debt or the history of struggling with money before we even really knew what it was? The degree of catharsis that permeated the mails I received was staggering, an outpouring of honesty about stories that, from not having a lunch at school to having their house foreclosed on overnight, probably didn’t get mentioned at happy hour with coworkers. And yet, no matter how many of us have a history of welfare, or an inability to balance a checkbook, or a genuine fear of ending up homeless no matter how successful we become, we will all still paint ourselves with the same brush of Helicopter Parents and Suburban Comfort.

There is perhaps a certain resentment to this idea that we were all raised in an insular bubble of relative success. When there are such profound socioeconomic divides in the same school zones, we can tend to overlook the fact that not everyone attending these classes goes home to the same environment. And whether or not investing so heavily in your child is ultimately detrimental to their personal sense of work ethic is something only time will tell. There are successful, hard-working people from all backgrounds, and that will likely continue for the foreseeable future. What is important, though, is recognizing that we all came from different places, and were imparted different lessons for how to navigate life as an adult. The children from poor backgrounds will likely always feel this divide, will feel acutely aware of money and what it means, no matter where they end up in life.

But honesty is possible. We can come clean about struggling with money, and the lessons we took from it, and perhaps even use it to prevent falling into the same traps we didn’t get to choose when we were young. No one needs to grow up poor to realize that we are a generation that doesn’t know what money means, but if we all felt more comfortable about admitting where we come from, and the realities we’re living with today, perhaps it would be harder to fall into traps of easy credit and reckless spending. Perhaps we could come to terms with the constant comparisons we felt when we were younger — no matter where we fell on the spectrum — that we are still dealing with today. Because it doesn’t matter what your neighbor makes, or which friend you think makes more than you did. We all have to live with our own financial past and present, and just pretending we’re okay doesn’t help anyone. TC mark

 

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.

Trace the scars life has left you. It will remind you that at one point, you fought for something. You believed.

“You are the only person who gets to decide if you are happy or not—do not put your happiness into the hands of other people. Do not make it contingent on their acceptance of you or their feelings for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you or if someone doesn’t want to be with you. All that matters is that you are happy with the person you are becoming. All that matters is that you like yourself, that you are proud of what you are putting out into the world. You are in charge of your joy, of your worth. You get to be your own validation. Please don’t ever forget that.” — Bianca Sparacino

Excerpted from The Strength In Our Scars by Bianca Sparacino.

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  • Mel

    Thank you for this. Just. Thanks.

  • GUEST

    I liked this, but I went into it expecting more of a focus on our generation’s sense of entitlement or our perspective on money, not the different financial hardships people grew up with. The title is just a bit misleading.

  • EA

    I believe most of our parents were just trying to raise well educated and happy children. But there is a line that divides these qualities from ‘spoiled’ and I’m sorry but I think that line is no longer visible.

  • Guest

    “And when we were looked at strangely for not having the laundry list of activities our parents put us in to cultivate our certain genius, we knew it was because we were poor. We were poor, and thus our worth would have to be proved on our own. We weren’t going to get access to many of these amazing opportunities, and it was something we would have to construct for ourselves.”

    Just thank you, everyday I freak out about how I’m behind and I have to catch up by pushing myself harder because my family couldn’t afford “the laundry list of activities”

  • Mary Kathryn

    I think it should be said to go along with this article that our parents came from a generation of constantly moving up. There were hardships, but the economy was a lot more stable in that they could become richer and provide more their children – us. However, we were old enough to truly comprehend the devastation that faced most middle class families when the recession hit. I, personally, am terrified of money. I’m scared of outspending what I can afford, I’m scared of the debt I will have to pay back after college, and just forget credit cards. So to answer the title of this thought, I think we are both entitled because of what we were given as children by parents who always sought to become bigger, greater, and richer, and we are also afraid to talk about money because many of us have seen where it left us once it was gone.

  • DW

    Great to hear all of those stories. My childhood was one where my family did pretty well (a yearly beach vacation was normal) and we didn’t have much to worry about, until my dad lost his job. We didn’t have to start eating Ramen or lose our house, but it was a very long period of uncertainty in my family. He is employed now (my mom went back to work as well), but my parents are still just barely getting back on their feet.

    Fortunately, my family had been wise about saving for a rainy day, and thanks to those savings and foresight, I graduated college debt free, with good grades and internship experience, leading to a great job 6 weeks after I graduated.

    While I didn’t struggle through life with a low-income lifestyle, I do feel very blessed my father had planned ahead and set me up to graduate without any student loan debt. I learned the very valuable lesson of planning ahead.

    I know I put away a much larger portion of my salary into my 401(k) and into other various accounts than my peers. I hope that by “starving” myself a little bit today, I’ll be more comfortable in the future and I plan on trying as hard as I can to succeed in sending my potential children to school without debt. It was the best gift my parents could have ever given me.

  • Elaine

    Thank you for touching on the divide. I went to private school for high school and would feel a radical shift from my everyday life at southern boarding school to going home. I love my family, but it almost always served as a reminder that I was poor and black and I damned well better not forget it. During a particularly rough time we were on food stamps and I will never forget my affluent boyfriends face when I confided in him and he looked like a deer caught in the headlights because he was so out of his element.

  • tnpb7d

    Interesting. Title is a little deceptive concerning the topic of the piece. Your interviews provided insight into a sub-set of our generation: those of us who were raised by parents without much financial savvy. We (especially if the eldest child) assumed some responsibility for the financial health of the family and as a result are much more prepared to be financially capable with our own finances. But throughout your piece, you juxtapose this sub-set with a privileged, entitled portion of the population that may actually represent the median of our generation. Research is showing time and time again that we enter the workforce with unrealistic expectations (amplified by the recession), that we chose majors based on predictions of future salary that are grossly inaccurate, and an inordinate amount of us choose majors like art and music that will never land us a job to support ourselves and a family. But we were raised in comfortable economic times where most of our parents weren’t rich or poor. We had everything we needed and had realistic expectations that even our wants would be fulfilled. Then comes the “real” world and we are unprepared for the work required to land and keep a job that achieves even a resemblance of the comforts we enjoyed as children. We then cry foul and loudly complain that it isn’t fair while reporting extremely high rates of depression relative to other generation groups. We feel entitled to more than this post-grad life provides us. We expected more.

  • Lady

    Truly, thank you for this. I absolutely relate to this, and I’ve always had a feeling of “otherness” being from an economically poor background and a socially upper middle class one (read: don’t know where my next meal is coming from growing up and into adulthood, the occasional eviction or turning off of lights, working from a young age to pay household bills, etc,. but being educated and therefore surrounded primarily by those who could AFFORD to be educated). The double life is something I’ve always felt, even if I’ve been technically honest about my upbringing (I’ve somehow always been able to spin it into charming cocktail conversation, though. More of a novelty–a stint–rather than what has been a constant reality). Finally, a piece that speaks directly to those of us in this situation. I know, growing up in poor neighborhoods, I’m OBVIOUSLY not the only one who knows about this. And yet, with media portrayals, it can certainly seem that way–that no one else gets it. This is much needed.

  • jacqueline

    I loved this. I grew up extremely wealthy until I was about 8 then my parents lost their business, their house, the majority of our possessions, experienced massive credit debt, and debt to private schools my brother and I had attended. My brother is ten years older so he missed the experience of having a frugal/lower middle class adolescence and he and I are completely different…he is spoiled, selfish, entitled by all means…I’m not perfect, but I appreciate what my parents did for me and I understood that they needed to cut me off as soon as they could – I was never angry like he was about it. I’m getting ready for grad school and absolutely terrified. The friends around me in grad school have all had financial help getting through grad school – this leaves me feeling very isolated…where is the money going to come from? What happens if it’s more expensive than I plan for? I have a steady, good job right now that I only got because I worked two jobs and interned through college – I had plenty of work experience that some of my wealthier friends didn’t find as necessary. It’s tempting to stay at this job even though I don’t really like it because it’s the most financially secure I’ve ever felt. My parents are in terrible financial shape – foreclosing on a home for the second time, my mom’s health insurance being $1,100/month and that’s not including her medication (she’s in recovery from bladder cancer), my dad lost his job in 2008 and has been struggling to provide with a .com business while my mother’s now on indefinite disability. They’re 65 but can’t retire in the forseeable future. I want to give myself security for the future without being the ever frugal friend, because like the article states it was always so important to blanket everyone with the same upbringing…

  • Guest

    What a thoughtful article, you’re a very talented writer. That’s all I wanted to say.

  • http://www.londonukprivateschools.com/private-schools-have-better-student-to-teacher-ratios/ Private Schools have Better Student-to-Teacher Ratios | London Private Schools, Private Schools In London UK

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  • KittenWithLasers

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this article, Chelsea. As a lower-middle-class student who went on scholarship to private school (elite prep school, then competitive private university) all her life, this has always been a point of awkward conflict in my life. And I guarded myself carefully. My house is in terrible disrepair because we can’t afford to fix it up, so I never invited anyone over; my friends’ cars are way nicer than my parents, so I never gave anyone rides. I never went to sleepaway camp. I never traveled to Europe, or even farther than we could go by car. My parents couldn’t pay for lessons, for tutors, for entertainment. I found my own way through books and writing and art and things I learned from the library.

    I run with that ”hipster” crowd here in college, the kids who live in shitty apartments, but on their parents’ dime; who clip coupons and are ”soooooo broke – tweeted from my iProne;” who ”scrimp” by, but know that they’ll always have their asses covered with a quick call to the moms/dad when the money gets low; who roll their eyes at having to miss a basement show basement show because their family wants them to stay a weekend at the house in Martha’s Vineyard. These people are my friends, but they don’t understand that I wear secondhand clothes because I’m literally without any other choice, that I work 40 hours a week with classes to pay my own rent and not for my resume, and that the ”shitty neighborhood” they make their drunken playground looks a lot like the one I grew up in. Your reference to the position of ”broke” privilege from which we often write (you totally mean HBO Girls) is totally valid. I’m guilty of this perpetuation of the privileged perspective as being the only perspective.

    I always tend to hide these facts because it’s easier because not speaking up is easier than it is explaining; I don’t want anyone’s pity or sympathy, and I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m trying to get anyone’s pity or sympathy. It’s a feeling of awkwardness that’s hard to explain to people who aren’t in my position.

    Because the fact is, especially in my subculture of urban liberal, socially-conscious artsy types, I often feel silenced and I often feel alone.

    Thank you, Chelsea and everyone who contributed, for making me not feel that way.

  • Alvaro

    Excellent article, my family took their first financial plunge a year after i was born. Before that they owned several property and assets. We lost it all. We ended up migrating to another country (legally) and moved back home (Mexico) 10 frugal years later. My father had landed a great job and my brother and i were enrolled in one of the elite schools in town. We were swimmers too and we recruited by a team that trained at one of the wealthiest country clubs in town. No way we could afford it so the country club gave our family a free membership there as long as we kicked ass in the pool, because our coach was a highschool friend of my dad. This is where i met my life-long childhood friends. A couple of years laters came the next plunge. This one hit home pretty hard. We became heavily in-debted. We’ve always rented ever since, moving from one house to another almost each year. I continued in the private school system for a while, growing up around private schooled country club kids. I know exactly what you guys are talking about, that “otherness” feeling that can persist throughout life. It’s hard to become a realist in world of idealist at very young age. Long story short (if i may) the financial bubble popped when i was around age 16 and i had to move out. I finished high school by my own means and spent my late teens working as carpenter in a woodshop in a ghetto in western Mexico (not as classy as being a carpenter in the US or Canada) and my early 20’s working construction illegaly in two other countries. All this while my friends (who are kickass down to earth cats despite the socio economical status although most people i grew up around are not) were attending full access elite prep schools and colleges, travelling through europe and the caribean on the holidays on their parents credit card. Quite a contrast between the way my brother and i grew up and the way our friends did. Although it seems like a full out bummer, now i believe that what i lived through during my late teens-early 20’s is one of the most valuable assets i have. I learned the trades and i am getting my architect degree in one of top 3 universities (although public) in Mexico. The job experience (super valuable to my degree) and life lessons from that frugal background let us appreciate what hard work perseverance and patience is all about. It is sad to see other people from my generation being disappointed by life when their expectations can’t be met due to the sense of entitlement they grew up with. There are times when you can even see it coming and they can’t. Maybe we just learned the lesson earlier. There’s no shame in that and no need to pretend we’re something we’re not. Society and the media has made us all believe to value we own, and not to value the hard work behind what little we might own and can provide. To be valuable beings is what we should strive for. Although the security of a home and income is fundamental, these things require hard honest work, we know that. And it’s even harder when we live in a world that seems to leave us out of it because we don’t make enough money. We gotta hang in there though. I didn’t know there were so many people who grew up in a similar way than i did. I salute you all, God bless you and keep working hard at making this world a better place than the one we found.

    • steakhouses

      thanks for sharing your beautiful comment

  • http://twitter.com/jennifersussex Jennifer Sussex (@jennifersussex)

    Many, many comments. Linked to this post due to the Thought Catalog email list.

    I read somewhere, once, that education was a class-regulating institution, i.e. it maintains the status quo. Simply, it implies that the “laundry list of activities” that run the scope of extracurricular activities reinforce a quota in life that occupies a space in time devoid of menial labor or practices or the illusion therein.

    Likewise, the development of or articulation therein of ‘leisure time,’ implies a class status (immune to the realized experiences of the parents/ familial structure) and complicated rhetoric that merely means that many students/ young adults do not comprehend the permanence of their actions whilst participating in a society. To some extent, we all live in a void of symbols, whether these are fictive or literal possessions is an entirely different story.

    • http://twitter.com/#!/noahblack Noah Black

      Less pseudo-postmodern nonsense, and more Veblen, would dramatically improve this post.

  • Julie

    As said in all of the other comments…thank you. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for putting our collective experiences into words. Thank you for getting a dialogue going. Thank you for expressing what so many people in our generation (myself included) have gone through, are still going through, and in times of weakness are still trying to hide. I hope you’ll write more articles along this vein. Many, many thanks.

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