Monday, May 24, 2010

What Comes After "The Greatest?"

As I begin to write about the financial reform bill, something irks me.  I never liked the moniker, "The Greatest Generation," which Tom Brokaw bestowed upon my generation's parents, those who grew up in the U.S. during the deprivation that followed the Great Depression, the parents of Baby Boomers.  Calling one of us the "greatest" suggests those who follow are destined to be less.  I don't like the threat of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Where do we draw the line between one generation and another?  To speak of the Greatest Generation or GI Generation as being born in the 1920s, then the Lost Generation of the 1930s, etc., seems random.  Ten years is too short, considering most women don't have babies until they're at least late teenagers. 

I digress.  When I taught classes in personal investment in the middle 1990s, I asked my students what kind of return they expected from their investments.  Most said around 20%, while a few threw out higher numbers and a very few low-balled it.  When I suggested that 4-11% was more realistic from a historical perspective, they shook their heads in disbelief and disappointment.  I suspect those students, 15 years later, have been jarred into a realization that 4% can be quite an accomplishment.

What irks me is that today's teenagers and twenty-somethings probably don't think about it, but if they do, they'd be tickled pink, and justifiably so, with 4%.  After all, they've most likely heard their parents and grandparents griping about negative returns ever since the bust.  "Why save?" they're asking, "what's the point?"

We older folks know better.  The point is, if we don't save, we know some day we'll be scrambling -- so much for early retirement or even retirement without a part-time job -- well maybe even if we do save, bummer.  How do we pass this questionable conviction along to youngsters, when our generation has proven to be so much less than great?

The topic is complicated by pop culture's confusion of psychology and economics.  When Oprah Winfrey brings Eckhart Tolle on board to tout "living in the now," are we reminded that living in the now can have serious implications for tomorrow?  Young people have plenty of trouble thinking long term.  If you throw "live in the now" at them, they're likely to say, "duh, that's what we're doing, I thought you wanted me to think about the future?"

"We probably ought to remember who Tolle's audience is," says Virginia, "us older folks."

Yes, I suppose so, as opposed to the "Greatest Generation," which fought not for fame and recognition but because it was the right thing to do.  Hmmm.

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