“I’m a grown adult. It’s my money, I earned it, and I’ll do what I want with it!” A friend of mine shouted these words recently when he dropped a bomb on me: he was thinking of moving out of his parents’ house. This is a minor miracle – he is 33 and except for a year or two has lived there his whole life; moreover, his older brother was still living in the basement too at the age of 36. He’s not even pioneering new ground! I’ve often prodded my friend to be more ambitious over the years, but had lost hope he would ever grow up until his Dad stopped him from buying a steel training club he wanted on the grounds he (his Dad) didn’t want a weapon in the house.
While this was going on, I also accepted new tenants at my house. They’re a quiet and friendly couple that are my age – great characteristics to have in a roommate if you’re an introvert like me. Yet, the longer I know them the sadder I become. One of them works in a factory; the other bounces around from one temp job to another. Whenever I’ve asked them about their future they confess no great plans. They aren’t planning on getting married, they aren’t saving for a home of their own, and they aren’t angling for promotions at work. They waste a ton of money smoking and drinking. My last roommate was nearly 50 years old, but he still had plans to make something of his life. My new roommates are 20 years younger than he was and I can already tell they’ll be no better off in the future than they are today.
What these two examples have in common is a sense of doom, a sense so common among us Millenials that there’s now a popular term for it: “failure to launch.” We graduated from high school, went off to college (maybe), came back, and then never left our parent’s house. We’re single with few romantic prospects, and too many of us spend our days time drinking, playing video games, hanging out on social media, or getting off to porn. The lucky among us at least have good jobs and can pay the bills, but others bounce from one gig to another, their skills and experience slowly atrophying over time. The really unlucky ones are plagued by debt and or various addictions. Rather than becoming the future of our families, many of us are becoming burdens to them – a dead end on the family tree.
This is a novelty in America, even if the trend had been gaining steam for years. Millenials, particularly men, were already facing challenges from two angles that prior generations never had to deal with: the prevalence of games/social media and porn. The former became popular when we were young, just as the tech industry became a multi-billion dollar affair that could hired scores of psychiatrists to craft games and applications to make them as addicting as possible. We were also exposed to porn at the moment when it became possible to pipe it into the privacy of your bedroom with the internet. Not just a bit of porn either – a whole planet’s worth. If the sex drive is an essential element to relationships and families, then our desire for those things is smothered in the crib when the need for sex is sated too easily. By the time Millenials finally graduate from games and porn they’ve already missed out on the crucial years of their 20’s that past generations used to make friends, meet their spouses, and secure a livelihood. They’re being cast out into a lonely existence.*
Then the Great Recession threw fuel on the flames. The economic calamity permanently stunted the careers of anyone entering the workforce for the first time between 2008-2010. Rather than being filled with the hope that comes from paid, meaningful work they were instead thrust into desperate situations. If they got a job, it was sub-par and they lost years of earning as a result. Even worse, by the time the economy recovered a new generation of college students had already graduated and were ready to take their place.** This crushing blow was magnified by the exploding cost of college and the resulting student loans from it. Naive parents told their children that “college is always worth the expense” or that “college always pays itself off” …and their naivety was exploited by a corrupt college system that puts profits, administrative salaries, sports programs, and fancy facilities ahead of an affordable education. These students had so much debt that they can’t afford to live independently or establish families of their own.
In one of the most free society’s in the world we’re surrounded by snares that drag us down.
Yet that isn’t the whole story; the individual is not free from blame. Ten years after the Great Recession the economy is booming and people should be making the most of the present to get ahead. Years after people started realizing how poisonous games, social media and porn were to the fabric of human society and personal happiness, everyone should be pulling the plug from their computer and cell phone. Yet so many people are stuck in a rut and refuse to budge! This harms men by limiting their capacity to take on the kind of responsibilities that bring meaning to life, harms women by delaying marriage to the point where many can no longer have children, and limits the pool of suitable partners for both sexes. We are infantilizing ourselves. Against all odds we’re somehow failing to cross the low bar into adulthood.
What can we do then to lift people over that bar?
I propose that we have, if anything, underestimated the importance of money and personal finance in the “failure to launch” phenomenon. It’s because my friend couldn’t spend his money the way he wanted that finally drove him out of his comfort zone. In the case of my roommates, both lived at their parents’ home too until they got jobs and decided they didn’t want to travel so far to work, which again pushed them out of their financial comfort zone. I’ve heard other cases too where people fail to launch because their poor spending habits throw them into debt and their parents are always there to save them. As soon as their parents’ close the wallet they start taking control of their lives. Fiscal responsibility seems to be essential in driving people into adulthood.
I came to this conclusion after spending time examining my life. The more I dwelled on it, the more I was surprised that I turned out half as well as I did compared to other Millenials. I made almost every mistake possible but arrived at a different result, which I realized was due to my parents’ influence. They cultivated ambition and money sense in me when I was young. It was always expected that I would start working when I turned 16 and anything that I wanted to buy I had to pay for myself – especially if I damaged the car in a fender bender! When I was in college, they paid for my tuition but told me that I had to cover my room and board, and that all my grad school loans were my responsibility. When I came back home to Minnesota they made it clear that I couldn’t get my old bedroom back and that I would move to an apartment once I had a decent amount of savings. Whenever I marveled at how nice their home and furnishings were they always stressed that this was the result of decades of hard work.
Their overarching theme was that work is never optional and life was not a free ride. I was always on the hook for something, no matter how small. I simply had to make more than minimum wage so I could stay ahead of my obligations;I simply had to think ahead to figure out how to make that happen.
That really was the difference for me. Many of my peers are only just beginning to build savings. Many are only now acquiring the social skills needed to survive in the adult world. Quite a few will never be able to attract a spouse or support a family. That’s a sad truth to realize so early in life. By comparison, I can pay off my house in 2-3 years if I want and I can get married and support children immediately. But for the grace of God (and my parents) go I…
I hope that my peers can free themselves of these snares as quickly as possible – video games, social media and porn. Debt and depression. I hope that they can seize the economic and social skills needed to get ahead. But if it’s too late for them, it’s definitely not to late for the next generation. I know that it’s difficult to escape from cell phones and social media today, but we can still encourage our children to start working early and shift financial obligations and responsibilities onto them as quickly as possible. If the money is taken care of, at least my children will have the freedom to correct their life in other ways, however late.
*This describes my life story too. I wasted my college years playing video games and not hanging out with friends and meeting girls. I was surrounded by tens of thousands of eligible ladies…and didn’t even bother saying “hi” to most of them. I thought I would focus on school and my career first until I was 25 and then start dating…only to realize later that it should’ve been the reverse! It is so much harder meeting people now. I also took on $40k of student loans that weighed me down for years afterwards, avoiding all sorts of fun things if they cost money. Long story short, my life simply hasn’t been as good as it could’ve been in all possible worlds.
**If you ever want to make friends with an older Millenial, complain to them about how the younger kids got jobs straight out of school that took you years to earn. You will make a friend for life.