Becoming an Adult

small-houseIt is generally agreed upon that, in order to become an adult these days, you need to get a good job, buy a home, have a couple kids, put one or two new cars in the garage, and, when the time is right, upgrade that “starter home” you fell in love with to one that more appropriately matches your growing status and collection of stuff.  Once you upsize, you will need to work harder or get a better job because it is more expensive to live there.  Plus, you need more furniture and accessories to properly big-houseoutfit your new home.  Kids rooms, office, living room as well as a family room and possibly bonus room.  You have a yard with outdoor living spaces now that need to be maintained.  Also, a larger house has greater financial demands- a new roof is that much more expensive, repainting a big house costs that much more.  Never mind the larger heating and cooling expenses.

As the kids get older, there are dance lessons, braces, soccer club fees, school activity fees, new clothes, shoes and doctor visits.  Let’s not even talk about saving for college.

Pretty soon, that new car is in need of repair or replacement, your credit card debt is starting to get out of hand, the washing machine goes on the fritz, and the burden of life becomes greater.

It starts to feel like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it?  In many ways, we are compelled to do this by the desire to “keep up” with our neighbors, the television programs we watch, and the movies we see, but it is not the only way to live!  It may take a while to get out from under the burden of it all but, if you are willing and dedicated, it is something that can indeed be done.  I am not saying sell all your possessions and become a monk.  No.  What I am saying is that by:

  • getting rid of many of the things we pack our homes with
  • rethinking our patterns of consumption and how we make purchases,
  • reconsidering the quality of the lives we have versus the quality of life we wish we had
  • taking a good look at what it actually is that we work so hard for everyday

we can indeed reduce the daily stress and expense of our lives and give ourselves the gift of opportunity to do more of the things we want- spend easy time with friends and family, travel, volunteer at your favorite charity, or even just do nothing!

My kids are nearly grown.  Such a weird thing to think about because I have been a parent for the last 20 years.  You know they will grow up- that’s just how things go- but to have it happen after such a long time is a little disorienting.

I have two step-daughters who have been finished with college for years.  Their brother is a junior in high school now and is spending the entire school year abroad in Taiwan.  His youngest sister is a freshman and will be graduating in just 3 1/2 short years.  They are all fantastic, unique, intelligent, and talented people doing their best to figure out this new 21st century world.

I wish we could have given them a road map to American adulthood, like the one my parents used that had been crafted over the last 60 years.  Do well in high school, get into a good college, develop a passion for a interesting course of study, and graduate with a degree.  That path would lead toward a good job and a comfortable sense of security.

We all know now that that sense of security is an illusion pennybut I don’t think it always masked as harsh a reality as it does today.  Middle class income and a thrifty sensibility (handed down by parents that lived through the Great Depression) was once enough to raise a family on.  These days, my eldest daughter and many, many others in their late 20’s (she is 28) are finding they are hard-pressed to find a place to live and make ends meet with the salaries that are available to them.  Unless you go to law school or get into the risky financial industry, you just can’t make enough money to get by today.

Twenty years ago, I was employed at an ad agency as an Interactive Producer getting paid $40,000/yr.  That was enough to pay the rent on our little farm house on 1/2 acre ($650) and maybe a hundred dollars in bills (electric, water, phone) plus food.  We didn’t pay for cable since there were a couple stations that still broadcast over the air and we had a VCR.  Cell phones weren’t a thing yet and internet access wasn’t part of your Verizon bill because all you needed was a phone line and a 56k modem.  (Amazon was around already but they only sold books.)  This may sound quaint now but it was pretty up to date at the time.  We drove an old car that we could maintain ourselves and gas cost $1.23/gallon.  The median price of a new house in the US at the end of 1996 was $144,900.

If we were to do the same thing today, rent for that same house would be closer to $1500, bills (including power, water, cell phone and internet) would be more like $250 and that same job would still pay around $40,000/yr.  A twenty year old car today needs a mechanic with specialized diagnostic equipment to do the maintenance work and gas is $3.79/gallon.  If you wanted to purchase a home based on the median at the end of 2013, you would take on a 30 year mortgage for $275,500.

My daughter has a good job where she makes $42,000/yr.  She has a car payment on a reliable vehicle, gas to get to and from work, an iPhone, health insurance, and a credit card payment each month.  Pretty small pile of bills but, with what is left over, she could not afford a studio apartment in the town we live in, never mind the utilities.  Buying an average house is even more out of reach with the tight mortgage market and the added expense of property taxes and insurance.

That is the brutal truth- while everything has gotten more expensive, wages have not increased in 20 years.  Once it was a mark of shame for a young adult to be “still” living with their parents but, these days, it is a realistic necessity.  It is reality for not only for the Millennials but for some of their parents as well.  In the 1950’s, a single income was typically enough to manage a household.  The Nineties brought the two-earner household into the mainstream.  Today, we are hard-pressed to make do (without resorting to credit) on two incomes.

The next 10 years are going to bring some big changes to our society.  The ridiculous political games in Washington, growing social discontent and constant wars will certainly have an impact, but I think it is today’s economic realities that will be the flash point.  We are no longer the nation we once were and are unable to recognize that.  Because of that blindness, we may be unable to do anything to remedy our own decline.  I think we have grown lazy and are more likely to get upset by celebrity tabloid news than the reality that our nation is being controlled by big money and big industry leaving little power or wealth for the vast majority of us.  Why are we not, as a population, outraged that we are still earning the same wages we were twenty years ago?

Despite all this, I do still have faith in the American people’s ability to recognize the problems facing us and take on the challenge to improve our own lives.  I believe we need to see past the immediate differences of opinion that divide us and look toward the nation that we can be once more.  We must adjust our expectations of what we need and how we need to live.  Our future will be one where we build and live in much smaller homes, multi-generational living will be more common and popular, fewer products and less stuff will fill our lives, and simpler lifestyles will ultimately need to develop.  We can no longer afford nor support the current American life.