Although dour, USA Today's stats-heavy piece on Gen Y's financial woes isn't anything we haven't heard before. We're the first generation in a century likely to end up monetarily worse off than our parents. Student debt load has increased 24% since 2004. 37% of 18-29 year-olds are underemployed or unemployed. And the beat goes on and on.
Photo by stuartpilbrow
What is interesting in this story and in others (say, Salon's
Hipsters on Food Stamps piece, for example) is the degree of moralizing, finger-pointing and general tut-tutting that seems to accompany discussions of Millennials and money. Neither general poor bashing nor the stereotyping of Gen Y as coddled dilettantes who can't hack the real dog-eat-dog world are anything new, but they seem to have joined forces to infect the discourse with an uncharitable air of, Well, those brats are going to get a dose of reality now. While I'm sure these people exist (and that one or more of y'all will bring them to my attention in the comments), I don't personally know anyone who blows their rent money on an iPad or prioritizes a pair of Louboutins over student loan payments. However, I do know plenty of twentysomethings who were never taught the first thing about personal finance or budgeting in school or at home, who don't track their spending and who live pay check to pay check either from necessity or again, a lack of skills to develop a realistic system of spending and saving.
While we might have every right to feel miffed at being portrayed as job-hopping spendthrifts and to be disgruntled over having to deal with the career body blow that goes hand-in-hand with coming of age in a recession, where does indulging this indignation actually get us? Tempting as it is, getting mired in fighting the moralistic rhetoric we're tagged with isn't going to fix the economy, and it isn't going to lower the youth unemployment rate or increase access to internships for low-income students. Gen Y needs to focus on what *is* within our control - the profoundly unsexy work of personal budgetary stock taking. We need to stop thinking that financial planning (both the act and the professional guidance around it) applies only to those with money in hand or that being purposeful about our financial futures is something that can wait until we've established our careers. We need to do some extra credit homework around determining our financial goals (getting out of credit card debt, owning a home within 10 years, etc.) and figuring what it would conceivably take to get from here to there and adjusting expectations and goals accordingly. And maybe, just maybe, after we've assessed the homefront, we can turn our collective attention to the student loan system, the health insurance sector and (a girl can dream, can't she?) lobbying efforts aimed at making financial education part of secondary school curriculum.