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Speaking for the spoiled brats, underachievers, and bleeding hearts

                               

Your child does not have to love you every minute of every day. He’ll get over the disappointment of having been told “no.” But he won’t get over the effects of being spoiled. –Dr. Phil

…what we have is an entire generation of young adults who got everything they ever wanted with little or no work, we have a cultural norm and it’s a problem. –Kristen Welch

Perhaps the biggest problem with entitlement is that under its illusions, there seem to be no real consequences in life and no motivation to work for anything. Someone will always bail you out, get you off the hook, buy you a new one, make excuses for you, give you another chance, pay your debt, and hand you what you ask for. –Richard and Linda Eyre

The entire idea of my parents having four kids on one income made us make tough choices all the time. We hardly ever ate out.  We nervously asked my dad for two quarters to play video games…but never more. “That’s too much,”  we’d say to each other. –Ramit Sethi

The younger generation doesn’t want to have to really “work” for a living. They want everything handed to them. They don’t want to have to go without their “extras.” They “deserve” everything, and cannot fathom having to go without it because they cannot afford it. No one is entitled to anything, and unless one works for it, you don’t deserve to have it. – Kathy Lambert

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If there were some sort of "agree-o-meter" to measure the extent of universally shared opinion on any particular topic, this one would probably be off the scale. It seems there's no one on this whole planet who sees any worth whatsoever in parents not running their households like pure capitalist systems - I give you a dollar, you'd darn better work your little tushie off to earn it.
Yeah, it's true -- kids as a rule don't understand the value of money, and they always want things. I don't think there's any force on earth that can change that basic psychological fact of the human condition. My son, raised in the 1990s-2000s, had that mindset, but so did I, three decades earlier. It might be a "new" thing, relatively speaking, as in, post-World War II, but it isn't something that just sprang up with the current generation.


I've spent a fair amount of time wringing my hands over the fact that my parents were extremely generous toward me during my earliest years, and deliberately kept me in the dark about their own financial realities. I've wallowed in guilt for years, as well as crushing helplessness at the realization that there's little or nothing I can do about it. They're both gone, about a quarter-century now, and my son is an adult. 

I trace my own sub-par financial management to my parents' attitudes. Specifically, it was my dad who promulgated that parenting style. He and my mother both grew up during the Great Depression, wearing patched clothing, watering down ketchup, doubling blankets and never feeling satiated after a meal. Dad dropped out of school and went on the road with a band; Mom was sent off to New York City by a mother who dreamed her beautiful daughter could easily make her fortune as a model. These experiences shaped their views of work, which boiled down to the following:

Mom: Any woman who works has a husband who isn't holding up his end of the bargain.
Dad: Work sucks. There is nothing glamorous about it. It's a necessary evil, and I don't want my child ever to have to experience it.

So both my parents, in their own way, raised me with the message that work, rather than being a noble pursuit that could yield great riches, was actually distasteful and undesirable. Mom put all her hopes for me in some future husband; Dad was counting on my intellectual brilliance. As it turns out, I didn't end up with much of either. By the time I reached middle age, I was awash in chronic and embarrassing financial mishaps, frantically scurrying along on my little hamster wheel, wearing out both myself and the wheel.

Fortunately, though, the truism that actions speak louder than words held true in my case. Dad may have dreaded the idea of me having to get up at the crack of dawn and work five days a week for decades...but he did it, and by some alchemy, his example rubbed off on me. Other than two unemployment checks collected 12 years ago, I have been steadily employed from the age of 20. My choice of career, however, probably came from Mom's nostalgic reminiscences about her years as an "office gal" at Sperry Gyroscope and some other now-defunct Manhattan companies.  Lunches out with "the girls," white gloves, neat stacks of steno books and carbon paper. I signed up for typing and shorthand in high school without a second thought, but admittedly, my thinking was anything but long-term. In typical lower-middle-class fashion, it was about a job, not a career. Dad envisioned me as another Marie Curie, discovering a "cure for cancer." Mom hoped I'd "marry a man with money, who'll take care of" me. 

My parents basically defined "success" for me as having the good things in life and being able to avoid having to work. And this, according to the pundits quoted above, surely put me at a disadvantage. But I doubt anyone could have ever talked my parents out of their convictions. Dad would have felt like an utter failure if I'd chosen a job over college, or "compromised myself" for a paycheck. To that end, he deliberately put on a charade of indifference toward money. One of my most enduring memories of my father was the way he'd leave a tip in a restaurant by crumpling up some random bill (usually a $5, sometimes a $10) and tossing it carelessly onto the table as he walked out. The clear message I got from this was, it's not really important -- it's just paper, after all.

I received a weekly allowance from age 10, which ranged from 50 cents originally to $10 until I was working full-time and didn't need it. The idea for this was proposed by me, after I copied, word for word, a chapter from a parenting book in the school library. The author recommended not tying allowance to chores done around the house, and my parents probably figured that if some guy with a Ph.D. said so, then it must be valid advice. After 1976, when "Bicentennial" quarters were introduced, Dad would bring me one or two every day, and never hinted that perhaps I should compensate him with an equivalent amount in other coins or paper money. My mother often loudly bemoaned our impoverishment, but she tended to bemoan everything, and so I dismissed her warnings of impending disaster.  Despite my parents' financial struggles, I never once heard my father say "No, that's too expensive; we can't afford it." 

Anything I wanted, I got. I suppose my parents got off pretty lucky, because most of what I wanted was relatively inexpensive, at least by today's overblown standards. But their indulgences were often poorly conceived and unnecessary -- an example being the above-ground pool in the backyard, even though our suburb had Olympic-sized public pools every 20 blocks or so.

I'm sure it was in part a concession to my mother that my first marriage was to someone with a lot of financial savvy, who grew up in circumstances quite different from mine. His parents were just as lower-middle-class and blue-collar as mine. They were Depression veterans as well, but they instilled an attitude of scarcity in their son, who had to hustle from an early age. One of his most vivid (and bitter) childhood memories was long walks home from school hockey games in the snow because he didn't have bus fare and his father wouldn't give it to him. In adulthood, money was the only real subtext for life. Whereas my father worked those long hours uncomplainingly while my mother stayed home right up until my sophomore year of college, my ex's major complaint about me was my apparent lack of ambition, being content with low pay and dwindling hours working in a doctor's office. Every penny spent was tracked, and he clearly trusted no one but himself to do the tracking. And so, my financial "innocence" continued until the divorce, when I was in my mid-30s with a young child, and forced to sink or swim.

I spluttered often, but never truly sank. And in spite of all the wolves of varying sizes at my door, and the realization that I will probably keep working to age 72 (if not longer) if health allows, a lot of that same attitude toward money remains in me. Business publications and newsletters I read continually exhort me to start my own business if I ever hope to "get out from under" and "make real money," but I have no foundational model for such a thing. I don't consider work demeaning; I like the social interactions and opportunities to solve problems -- even if they're usually someone else's. The money I make goes toward the predictable things: Housing, insurance, food, utilities, healthcare, clothes, the occasional cheap indulgence, and minuscule savings. As long as there's enough, I'm happy and able to sleep at night.

And I think my "spoiled" upbringing is at the bottom of my social justice impulses. To me, it's inconceivable that anyone should work more than one full-time job or two part-time jobs just to survive. Things should be affordable. People should be comfortable. Yes, we were relatively poor, our car was old, and things wore out and couldn't always be replaced right away, but if Mom thought London Broil or shrimp sounded good for dinner, she could go out to the store and buy it without having to feel nervous or shameful. It was food, and as long as it was eaten and not wasted, well, why have to worry about being able to pay bills at the end of the month, just because we had steak every couple of weeks? That was how we lived in the 1960s, and to me, it was a good system. There was a safety net. We weren't "on the dole," as Mom would have expressed it, but we didn't have a sense that every transaction was a potential landmine, with booby traps set by heartless corporations who regarded us as subhuman because we lacked money and connections. We had dignity, and that's an ingredient missing from the current social contract between "the 99%" and those in power.

That's the point of this rather long, rambling post. I may not have been raised according to the self-righteous, "tough-love" advocates who foretell doom for any kid who didn't grow up like Oliver Twist, but I did learn perspective. And I never judged poor people harshly or felt that they should "just work harder" or "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." Mine is a radically contrarian mindset: I did get most of what I wanted in my childhood...and in balance, I think I'm a better person for it.

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