Many years ago, when I was a young divorcing woman and mother, I wrote an article for a popular women's magazine about finding emotional support where I least expected it … from my two daughters, then ages 8 and 12.
Fast forward a decade and a half, the girls are now grown, and once again they’re teaching me something new through their diverging views on money.
There is so much talk of this generation—their generation—and what will be left to our children after this recession eventually evaporates, and they're forced to pick up the pieces.
As a "guilty-as-charged" baby-boomer I grew up blue collar and wanted my daughters to have all that I never had. My “Plan A” was our collective American dream: Grow up, get married, have babies ... white picket fence, big house, cars and a couple exotic vacations a year.
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Then the reality of “Plan B” kicked in. Suddenly we were all scrambling for cover. Mortgages, maxed credit, divorces, my kids, his kids, step kids, college tuitions, empty bank accounts and finally … soul-searching. Why hadn’t our material plan paid off?
So now I’m on to “Plan C.” Whatever that is …
Two Daughters, One Great Divide
As 20-somethings coming of age in this America, my two girls are still on “Plan A.” And their respective plans are turning out quite differently than mine did. That's because they fall neatly on either side of an economic fault divide—hitting college, respectively, before and in the midst of this great recession.
Rebecca, age 26, graduated cum laude with a bachelors and a high-paying job in Boston before the worst of it hit. Now she works for one of those sales & marketing companies, with the thoroughly-modern title of "social networker."
She’s the everything-went-according-to-my-plan child … able to afford paying off her minimal college loans, evens splurging on luxuries like designer handbags and thinking about saving for that expensive sports car. She thinks she can have it all, but it’s still never enough "stuff."
Now suddenly I'm hearing, “Where am I headed? Is it worth all this?”
My Post-Recession Girl
My other daughter, Maxine, just-turned 22, is my post-recession baby. Now in her final year in college, she's struggling to graduate and tempted to drop out. Not because she isn’t a good girl with good grades, but because she will never be able to utilize a “useless degree” which has become a financial albatross.
“A bachelor’s is just something on my résumé,” she'll fume. “It will never amount to anything because there aren’t any jobs out there where my salary will cover my rent and my loans. I mean, when you were young, did you have to pay rent and a second mortgage payment?”
She just wants to survive—but, graduating today, just surviving seems insurmountable.
The irony is, she’s not angry. Despite being a victim of our greedy generation, materially speaking, she wants nothing.
“My mom wanted more than her parents, but I don’t want more than mine," she'll explain, if you ask her. My sister’s generation is more competitive, but anybody in college now has nothing left to compete over.”
It’s a miracle that, unlike so many other kids just like her, Maxine hasn’t yet had to move home.
A Material Catch-22
Currently she lives with her boyfriend, Greg. He’s a children's tennis instructor; she’s a hostess at a local restaurant. They drive a compact car and live in a beach bungalow. Their idea of perfection? Racing their shelter dog on the salty shoreline and enjoying a Sunday day-off hike.
Maxine isn’t interested in having great negotiating skills because, unlike me, she doesn’t feel the need to sell. “I’m taking the 'let go' approach to the universe and hoping it’s there to get my back," she'll say. "I’m a happy, free-spirited hippie."
She's not happy being broke, she'll admit, but then, in the same breath, "I'm not defined by money."
Maybe the Dalai Lama was right: Have not, want not. Or maybe she's just 22.
So far, she’s taught me that exhaling and taking one day at a time is not the grind we once thought we had to have. As a matter of fact, I’ve learned so much from her that I’m packing up my decade of life in the big city and moving to Florida to be near her.
After all, there’s something liberating about riding a bicycle down the streets, a wicker basket atop your handlebars, no matter how old you are.
Maxine has so much disdain for my generation—as represented by all those striving Housewives writ large on TV. "They’re flawless on the outside, but breaking down on the inside," she says. "They entertain me, but they certainly don't inspire me."
And maybe she's right. Coming of age and seeing the world through the gray-tinted glasses of a recession, maybe she's seen enough already to never need a Plan B.
Lois Cahall is a journalist and the author of the new book Plan C: Just In Case.
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