Related to last Thursday’s post, I am aware of the source of some of the anxiety that I’ve been having about this move. It is rooted in choosing to live in a way that is different from the way that I was raised to live. I was raised in the suburbs. I have one brother. My parents worked opposite shifts so we never had to go to daycare. We certainly didn’t have a lot of money as a family unit, but I always had my own bedroom, even when we lived in a trailer. We went to Catholic grade school. We went on annual vacations (even if it was just camping most of the time!). We had plenty of toys. Plenty of stuff. We had very little awareness of what a struggle it was for our parents to provide all of this to us. In our minds we weren’t spoiled. We were just “normal.” Now I look back at what my parents sacrificed for us (They never had new clothes. They always drove crappy cars. They never got to get away alone together. Etc.), with a mixture of awe, gratitude, and horror.
At the time, mom and dad were just doing what they felt they were supposed to do. Get married. Have kids. Buy a house. Accumulate stuff; mainly for the benefit of their children. They were raised under the idea that their role as parents was to provide a better life for their children than the one they had themselves (even if it meant going into debt to do it). The American Dream. I still think that this ideal rings true; I think that most young parents still want to create the best life possible for their children. I hope so, anyhow! I just think that “a better life” is in the process of being redefined. The idea of “the good life” in American culture is very stuff-centric. There are prescribed steps that, when followed, are supposed to lead to success. Success is a nicely decorated house on a big lot, with lots of fancy appliances and electronics, new cars every couple of years, vacations, etc. In my parents’ generation, and for a couple generations before and after theirs, everyone strove for an approximation of this image of success.
My generation may have been the last where the majority of us were raised in some approximation of the American Dream. The middle class. We were raised to believe that the culture of stuff is normal, and even necessary. Now the middle class is disappearing. There are the rich (we’re talking Oprah and the like, here), the wealthy (aka, anyone that can afford to live the way that my generation was raised to live), the poor (what used to be blue-collar middle class), and the very poor (those that can barely afford, or can’t afford, basic needs like food, shelter, etc.). My friends and I represent the new middle class. Educated, but without any of the money or stuff that has historically been associated with being educated. We simply can’t afford it – our incomes are not commensurate with our education, or with the amount of educational debt we carry.
Roughly 90% of people I know in my age group (I’m thinking of a group of about 100 friends and acquaintances) went to college. A good chunk have advanced degrees as well. The majority of us are married or permanently coupled. At age 30-35, only around 5% own their own homes. Almost everyone I know still rents. We all buy our clothes at discount stores. Some of us have some fancy electronics, etc., but they are in apartments or very modest homes. Many of us are thinking about starting families, but are worried that we can’t afford it, particularly when we are so mired down with student loans, and aren’t yet making enough money to comfortably pay on them, live life, and support children. For us, the old American Dream just simply isn’t really available.
What I think, what I hope, is happening, is that many people, particularly in my generation, are readjusting their ideals for “the good life” to look a little less like their parents’ ideals, and a little more like their grandparents,’ or great-grandparents’ ideals. To be happy, we don’t need a lot of stuff. We can’t require a lot of stuff for happiness, or happiness would literally be impossible. We can still have families. We can still experience life. We just can’t do those things AND own a lot of crap. For many of us, it has to be a choice. I think that for those of us that are on the cusp of this change in ideals, the transition can be emotionally difficult. It has been for me, anyhow. It is difficult to be raised in one value system and to then adjust to another value system. Pieces of the old value system still come back to haunt you, as unreasonable as they may be. My old value system comes back and whispers in my ear that, even though I make a relatively decent living and don’t hate my job, I’m not as successful as I should be.
The reality is that I simply can’t afford to live the same way that my parents did, and neither can most of my peers, despite the fact that I took full advantage of all of the opportunities that they gave me; I took all the right steps. That reality feels a little bit backwards, and my emotions rebel against it (as do those of my parents). But the truth is that I know that the way that my parents ‘ generation, and the generations around theirs, lived has caused massive destruction on this planet, and in the health and well-being of billions of humans. I don’t really even want to live that way. The simple truth is: of course I can live in a small space and still raise a child well. Of course I can be happy and experience life in that same small space. Of course I can get by with fewer outfits. Of course I don’t need every updated gadget that appears on the market. Of course I don’t need to buy my children gobs of toys. Of course I don’t need to eat out all the time. And so on, and so on, and so on. My grandmother did it. Her mother did it. Everyone turned out just fine. Everyone turning out fine and happy is the true mark of success. Not stuff. My family and I will be just fine, too.