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Recession Lessons?

A generation of entitlement takes on the recession.


From the Fall 2009 Wonka Vision magazine.

Lunch with my grandparents often means splitting a can of soup among the three of us, maybe a bologna sandwich (one slice only) and sometimes a banana or a can of peaches. It's amazingly cost effective - the three of us eat for less than five dollars, if that.

Dinners aren't much different.

In their modest little home (maybe 1,000 square feet total), my octogenarian grandparents live comfortably without extravagance. There's no plasma TV, no "great room," no stainless steel appliances. Nothing in their house has a brand name you'd recognize.

Their very existence defines frugality.

Yet, photographs line the walls, telling the story of lives well lived - the occasional cruise, weddings, family gatherings, my prom picture from twenty years ago.

My grandparents were teenagers during the bulk of the Great Depression of the 1930's. They struggled to survive, dropping out of school and doing whatever jobs they could find in order to make ends meet and put food on the table. My grandfather ventured from the East Coast to the blazing hot Southwest where he built roads with the Civil Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt's New Deal program. Then he fought in the war while my grandmother worked back home in the factories.

Those hardships shaped their lives and their values. Even now, they savor every penny they earn, they don't waste a thing, and they fully experience every minute (though their experiencing today is often evidenced in their near constant bitching).

I can't help but wonder whether people now will learn from our current difficult economic times and live more humbly?

Will increasing prices, decreasing employment and the overall financial collapse make people change their spending habits, their lifestyle and their appreciation of life? Will society finally shun expensive monster trucks in favor of mass transit or two-wheeled manpower? Can we finally quit the "keeping up with the Joneses" routine and simply enjoy what we have?

Or are we beyond evolving, our minds permanently corrupted by the egocentric music videos and vapid television where all things are big and shiny, the fashions are the latest, and the attitude is haughty beyond reproach?

I may be just getting older, but I fear the latter will prevail.

I was a classic Gen-X kid, the son of divorced parents who worked all day. I came home from school to an empty house where I entertained myself. There was no one around to influence me so my imagination ruled. Books and TV and music - really loud music - were my guidelines. But the best stuff flowed from my head - I'd draw and write and explore ideas. That taught me to be independent, to take care of myself and to think on my own.

Money never meant much to me because I never had any. Marriage wasn't an institution since my parents were divorced (my father ultimately marrying four more times). I've never been especially confident but as an independent person, I never much cared what people thought about me anyway.

The Millennial Generation, it seems, were raised by parents who were appalled by latchkey kids like myself. Rather than let children fend for themselves, the parents of Millennials nurtured their kids, constantly reinforcing the positives, a trend that introduced soccer moms, trophies even for the losers, and the modern-day helicopter parents.

The result is a generation that thrives on praise, almost expecting it. They assume that everything they do is perfect, and constructive criticism is an insult. The Millennials tend to believe they can achieve greatness simply by being themselves - of course they'll be rich, beautiful and famous!

Their sense of entitlement will make it difficult to go solo in this recession. I predict that many recent college grads will be camping out with Mom and Pop for a while in the immediate future.

It could be humbling. Or it could make them even more pampered.

What qualifies as a "success" these days has been influenced by the awful contemporary values that shaped the Millennials. Greatness as a birthright? The person with the most money is the best?

Talent won't make you an American Idol winner. Intelligence won't get you on the cover of TIME magazine. Genius - the product of talent plus intelligence and vision - isn't championed in public anymore. Instead of Dylan or Springsteen, these days we get Lindsay Lohan.

The world ebbs and flows - we go from general prosperity to intense divisions between the haves and have-nots. We go from peace to war, to relative peace again - if only temporarily.

I like the way music evolves with each generation, the sounds symbolizing the sentiments of the time. During the most difficult periods of the 20th century, the greatest music evolved. The blues grew from the Depression. Rock was born out of mainstream rebellion. Punk's anger rose from the frustration of 70's economic divide. Rap originated from similar causes.

In the end, I think this economic crunch might be a good thing. It will slow down our greed (hopefully), our arrogance (probably not) and our mass stupidity (please?). It will force people to see life beyond the dollar signs and appreciate the amazing gift of life. There's beauty in simplicity.

It may take another generation before these lessons kick in.

In the meantime, I'll be making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.