Guest Post: The Folly of Misspent Optimism: Generation Neutral

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Submitted by Chris Moorman, a 24 year old member of "Generation Neutral"

The Folly of Misspent Optimism: Generation Neutral

America for the past century has been nearly synonymous with progress. A model based upon constant growth, the American style system of capitalism, built upon the dual building blocks property rights and nearly unlimited economic freedom, has allowed free movement of capital, talent and vision to produce the wealthiest country that the world has ever seen. This has not been without its hiccoughs and imbalances, but on the aggregate, the American system of ever rising prosperity has brought with it a rising standard of living for all parties in the post WWII era. The American birthright has been a promise of a hold on the ladder, and a better life for each subsequent generation.

This economic juggernaut used the free movement of capital to allow risk takers to borrow at the present to take advantage of the growth of the future. This system has withstood many shocks; the unilateral pullout of the Bretton Woods gold standard by Nixon, the subsequent stagflationary environment of the late 1970s and early 80s, to  the fall of the communism leaving American style capitalism as the unrivaled economic system in the world. American exceptionalism was not so much an opinion as an accepted fact.

This was the promise that Generation Neutral predicated its approach to maturity upon. Demographic headwinds stood in our way for sure. The baby boomers and the entitlement economics they had been promised began to seem underfunded at the present which meant declining standards of living in the future. An over-levered system of government subsidized housing found that the hangover left in the wake of the Internet boom and the new diplomatic order put forth after 9/11 would squeeze those on the margins past their breaking point. Government intervention which would have been unthinkable even a generation ago now seemed like the only thing holding our system from the edge of the abyss.

We avoided the abyss after the post-Lehman collapse of 2008. Purportedly rational players in the government arena used every tool at their disposal and designed new tools on the fly to keep the system from stalling out. Business cycle boom and bust is inherent in a free movement system such as ours, and we’d dealt with it before. Once the growth engine started running near its historical averages, the economy would rebound and the train would get back on the tracks. Life would return to normal and Generation Neutral would outgrow its debts fast enough to promise our children that life would still be better for them than it was for us. At least, this is what we’d planned on.

So we continued to pile on the debt, spending today so that our future earnings would allow us the lifestyle we’d always hoped for. College tuition rose at unthinkable rates when compared to CPI and other inflation measures, aided by a system of government backstops and a “no-way out clause” which took away the mechanism of bankruptcy in order to absolve the insolvent of an impossible to pay debt. Still we borrowed. Ivy league educations cost on the order of $120-150K, while even the “affordable” state school educations hovered above 60k for 4 years. We told ourselves that this was an investment in our future, that when the growth engine restarted, we’d be on the forefront of the new boom. 

After 2008, it appeared that the growth engine was taking longer to prime than anyone had planned. Ivy League graduates, with crushing amounts of college loans, were forced to take jobs as baristas and retail workers; careers far below those promised by the glossy recruitment packets we’d gotten in high school. Some risk takers in my generation doubled down, and headed off to graduate school to “wait out” the recession as opposed to taking jobs which seemed beneath our level of expertise and education.

Increasingly, these “investments” are looking like consumption periods for which the bill will come monthly for 15-20 years. Those who doubled down on their bets with grad school, found that in addition to undergrad debt, the average 75-100k of law school debt looked nearly insurmountable when compared to starting salaries in the 50-70K range. A law school graduate with $150k (a number which errs on the conservative side if any) in combined undergrad and law school debt 6% at  is now looking at nearly $1300/month in loan repayments over a 15 year period. This is comparable to the payment on a 30 year mortgage on a $250,000 (slightly above the 2010 median home price) house at 5%. If the baby boomers are planning on my generation bailing out their underwater homes, they’d better find another plan.

Currently, a college grad making $75,000 (well above the median for the graduates of the downturn (2007-2010)) in Manhattan contributing nothing to pre-tax retirement brings home a little over $4,000 monthly. When this is stacked up against an average monthly rent of $1350, and a student loan repayment of $1300, this makes for a mere $1350 in disposable income. This makes it quite difficult to save the necessary funds for a downpayment on a house, and even makes it difficult to build a solid safety net of savings.

The real issues of my generation have unfortunately been glossed over. There have been the occasional articles chronicling how lifetime earnings are adversely affected for those who come out of school into a recession, but this downturn has already had a duration above and beyond the norm, and at present doesn’t appear to be ending any time in the near term. Meanwhile, the bills are stacking up, and even those of us who are working from Generation Neutral are starting to be concerned that the debts we signed on for at 18 will live to haunt us well longer than our worst projections. There is beginning to be a certain resigned malaise hanging over us, and as capitalism is a system predicated on growth and a healthy amount of optimism in the future, this is yet another headwind to our economic and even psychological well being.

Other than the turnout brought upon by the “Hope and Change” campaign of President Obama, Generation Neutral has found itself strangely ambivalent about the political discourse, even as the bills are continuing to migrate from our parents’ generation to our own. A conversation about the national debt usually ends with the trite phrase “I don’t really care about politics” while the political decisions of today affect our economic future at an ever increasing rate compared to our parents and grandparents.

I’ve yet to figure out what will break our apathy, as our misspent optimism still keeps us believing, however fleetingly, that this too shall pass. The day that we collectively realize that better days aren’t coming could well be too late, but the debts amassed during our optimistic youth will still continue to knock on our door. If our generation doesn’t have it better than our parents’, I wonder what the narrative we tell our children will sound like.