My cousin has a running quip that gets funnier as we get older: back in the day, elders — especially ladies in our church — believed in playing matchmaker for the younger set, and since we come from a family of big-hat wearin’, hallelujah-shoutin’ sisters of the sanctuary, it seems like that tradition would still be alive and kickin’. “I wouldn’t be 37 and single,” my cousin insists, “if our moms had stuck with the script and found me a nice young man to marry when I was like 21.” Well, she does have a point there. They are kinda slippin’.
Even among my married friends, though those are few and far between, there seems to be a distinction between the yesteryear and the here and now. Most of them make more money individually than their parents did together, but they don’t have as much material stuff to show for it. And boy, do some of their moms and dads give them the blues about it.
It usually starts off a little something like this: “By the time I was your age, I had three houses and a boat” or “by the time I was your age, I paid for a car for me and your mother — in cash.” That inability to recreate a similar financial wow factor is cause for their parents to point out their kids’ bad habits, from jumping too much from job to job to spending ass-crazy amounts of money (as my uncle would say) on fancy coffees and dinners out. “This is why you don’t have a house!” he hollers at my bewildered cousin, dangling a pair of designer shoes in front of her. “Might be why you don’t have a man, too! This stuff is cute in the beginning, but don’t no man want to see his money being blown through at Macy’s.”
I stick up for her in my mind: Ha! Shows what you know. She’d rather be caught in a stampede of sweaty zoo animals than shop at Macy’s. Hmph.
True, she’s making good money at her job but still living in an apartment. As a matter of fact, almost everybody in my circle is still in apartments, a fact they’re far from content about, because they want that same sense of accomplishment, because they want to have a piece of property to call their own, and particularly because back when they were in their 20s and 30s, their parents were well settled into homes already. Some even had vacation spots on top of the regular, everyday houses. And isn’t each generation supposed to be doing at least a little better than the one before?
Now, I will say this on my generation’s behalf: many of our parents weren’t weighted down with the same hefty amount of student loans or financial baggage and they were more content to have less. Not us. On average, we’re now coming out of college owing 81 percent more in credit card debt than they were back in the 80s. It’s almost like, even though we were pushed to do better, no one made it clear that we would be paying so dearly for it.
So they might have been living out the little American dream with a little nuclear family and a little piece of land deeded to them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they were happier. I mean, there are surveys and polls and questionnaires, but even those aren’t capable of tacking down hard and fast figures about who’s more content, especially when you weigh it against history. There’s no Marty McFly, Back to the Future-ish method of figuring out how satisfied our parents were when they were in their 20s, 30s, 40s, even with all of the accouterments of success.
Sure, many of us planned to be married before now, whatever age your now is. We may have aspired to have houses and plump 401(k) accounts and an enviable net worth to make our moms and dads feel like they’d raised savvy offspring. My mom was well into her 40s when she bought her first home — the one she’s still in now, as a matter of fact — so between that and me being the first person in our family to go to college, I never felt the pressure some of my friends feel to recreate their parent’s success. Not to say my mama isn’t successful because she sure enough is, but ostensibly, I’m on track to do better than she did at my age. It’s the standards that I’ve set for myself that are the beast.
So what do you think? Are you in a better position in life than your parents were when they were your age? What does that mean to you?
Image via Neeta Lind/Flickr