Keeping Up With the Joneses

Have you looked at any seniors recently? They're dressed pretty nicely, in button-down shirts, khakis, black pants, etc. But they have bags under their dull, glazed-over eyes. Their brows are often furrowed. You ask them what is wrong? "Recruiting," they reply.

Everywhere you turn the media tells us that the times have never been so good for young people. The younger generation has always thought they were smarter than their parents, but the phenomenal success of dot-coms headed by 27-year-olds who eschewed college has actually proved us right. Books like Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and Luxury Fever tell us that younger, educated classes are getting richer quicker than any before. Two years of I-banking and you're making serious six figures including bonuses. And if you don't want to "beat the Street," you don't have to! For the first time in recent memory, the nation's premiere business schools have started recruiting people straight out of college. Without any work experience, you can get an MBA from Harvard Business School where the starting salary for gradates is $110,000 a year.

But the picture looks very different on the ground floor. According to Robert H. Frank's article in the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, it's perfectly natural that people are getting richer and feeling poorer. Students don't want to make $50,000 a year, or $100,000 or $250,000. They want to make just a little bit more than all their friends. It's competition, baby--except it's not for foraging space or hunting territory, it's for the big bucks. Frank cites H.L. Mencken's definition of a wealthy man: "one who earns $100 a year more than his wife's sister's husband." In other words, we aren't greedy, we're just impressionable. Despite the impending empirical affluence of graduating seniors, they're only concerned with their relative value. They just want to be able to afford the same cell phone that everyone else has.


According to Frank, we're just joining the rat race earlier in some kind of sick competition. Each time the media (journalism, by the way, is notoriously low-paying) makes much of the latest millionaire success story, the bar is raised that much higher on how much each senior needs to make after graduation to be considered successful. While it used to be enough to just have a steady job, now $50,000 a year is standard. The prize: a venture capital firm, which could pull in up to $150,000. Of course, those firms only hire three people a year--hence the increasing bleary-eyedness of the Class of 2001.

So don't worry, Harvard; you're not base, greedy or soulless, you're just impressionable.

In a way, Frank is right. We are too impressionable. We are too impressed by the accomplishments of our parents' generation. We are the eternal second act to the Baby Boomers. Their political consciousness ended segregation, started the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution. I hate to say it, but we can't compete. No one is going to be writing Greatest Generation books about us.

Yet we strive to be appreciated for ourselves. While the previous generation was defined by the saying "Don't trust anyone over 30," ours can be summed up by the motto "Pretend that you are already over 30." People, we're in our early 20s and we already buy into the status quo and dream of owning a split-level home with a two-car garage--no wonder we're unhappy.

But unhappiness isn't the only ramification of our accelerated growth cycle. What happens when we hit retirement, at age 40? We can try to relive our glorious twenties. Buy a nicer car, nicer house, nicer jet... But creaky bones and kids will get in the way of the monthly bungee jump. The dream of living a second, more exciting life post-financial sector seems impractical. At the age of 21 you chose the safe route to Wall Street. Is it plausible to assume that this same person will choose the adventurous path when they have a spouse, a mortgage and college tuition bills to worry about? A conservative at 20 does not become a hippie at 45.


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