Sunday, April 27, 2008

Money Talks

When was the last time you discussed your salary, the cost of a major car or home purchase, or your personal finances with your friends? If you are not unlike the rest of us mid-twenty-somethings, it was probably pretty recently. In today's Sunday Styles section, NYT writer Alex Williams explores the openness of our generation when it comes to personal finances. (See Williams article). Williams attributes the phenomenon of glib to generational and cultural characteristics.

Williams concludes that the reasons we blab, unlike our predecessors, is generally three-fold. First, technology (i.e. blogging, MySpace, and Facebook) helps facilitate a constant flow of communication. Second, we are a generation with a "shared struggle," who have come into our own against the backdrop of 9/11, a sluggish economy, and a major credit crunch-- making us more open and of the mind that "we are in this together." Third, unlike our parents, we don't measure our success in terms of dollars, and therefore don't mind sharing such trifles as salaries. 

I agree with most of Williams' assertions, but for different reasons. First of all, as a graduating law student with nearly $200,000 in student loans (guffaw!), how can I not talk about what consumes every fiber of my being? Second, I am surrounded by peers who share my financial woes and can relate- so talking about it helps alleviate some of the stress and helps us take solace in the fact that we are all in this together. 

Finally, and what I think Williams overlooks, we are caught in what I call the Brooklynization of America. That is, I think many Gen Y-ers find it unappealing to work 120 hours a week for some corporation or law firm because we do not care about the status.  We are a generation raised to believe that our value lies in cooperation, participation, and making a contribution to the greater good.  Growing up, we were told that we were "special," and its not about winning or losing, but how we play the game. So, we talk about salary because it simply does not matter. We don't equate our self-worth with numbers. And, as my friend Ian points out, our high-earner peers talk about money to alleviate their guilt about choosing large salaries over do-gooder work. 

The irony is-- while we are a culture becoming ever the more open about finances and ever the more detached from valuing ourselves according to salary, we are also becoming increasingly materialistic. I think that every one of my girlfriends owns a Coach purse, and a few other choice "status purchases." And the obsession with money is hitting us earlier on in life.  Last summer, while strolling in Manhattan, I saw a girl of no more than thirteen carrying around her accessory puppy in her Louis Vuitton handbag while sipping an iced mocha frappe from Starbucks, all whilst struggling to answer her cell phone. "What is wrong with this country?" I thought to myself.  How are we going to support the up and coming generation, who are becoming material-obsessed at younger and younger ages? 

Maybe our job is to bridge the gap between our elders-- who fear talking about money-- and our successors-- who can't seem to get enough of flaunting their parents' money.  Perhaps opening a healthy dialogue is a good way to alleviate our financial fears, continue to work together for solutions, and combat the up-and-coming cash-crazed culture. 


Ian said...

I think you have overlooked another reason we talk about money: guilt. I think a lot of people talk about their earnings to justify their current vocation. For big money earners, I think people talk about the money they are earning because they feel guilty about "selling out," as though they can justify doing evil because the price is right.

On the other side of the spectrum, I think low wage earners talk about their finances to add legitimacy to themselves, that artificial poverty (over educated, upper middle class suburban kids are not genuinely poor) is as much a status symbol today as the import car and McMansion was to our parents. It is as though an entire generation is proclaiming "I am better than you because I earn less money."

Kelly Ferraro said...

I agree: think it is becoming a status symbol to be artificially poor...

I guess I just don't have a lot of friends making big bucks (and if they are, they certainly are not apologizing for it... or talking about it). But the few corporate lawyer friends I have justify their jobs, as you said, by claiming the price is right and they need to pay of their loans. Maybe it is guilt driving them, and maybe they are afraid to face the simple truth that they just like the comfort, security, and high that comes with a big paycheck.

Thanks for reading & commenting ;-)

Ian said...

I think people earning money don't necessarily realize they are even trying to justify anything, but subconsciously that is what they are doing. What I mean is, I think in conversations when finances come up, people earning a lot of money bring the conversation around to possessions or travel or property ownership to distract themselves from the fact that their vocation is less interesting, less meaningful, and less fulfilling then perhaps they expected, or where promised by the previous generation.

I think you are right that our parents and teachers and elders imputed onto us a sense of self worth independent of wealth, but along with that was this promise that we were special and could change the world. For some people I think the collection of possessions and the amassing of wealth is a substitute for the fact that they are not going to change the world and talking about those things instead provides a justification for otherwise unfulfilled aspirations.