For some deeper thinking on the effect of the recession on the Net Gen, I turn to Fast Company staff writer and author of Generation Debt, Anya Kamenetz. As Anya rightly noted in one of her Yahoo! Finance columns, “Economic dramas shape an entire generation’s beliefs about the nature of the economy and the risks involved.” That was a year ago and already she was postulating about how the Net Gen’s psyche might be shaped. Specifically, she noted that young people:
- Won’t expect to get rich quick.
- Will “get real” about consumption.
- Will buy on the cheap.
I spoke with Anya recently so I thought I’d ask her to elaborate on her thinking.
What effect do you think this recession will have on the psyche of people entering the workforce now?
“The climate in the last 10 years has been a very unrealistic one. We have been living in this huge bubble. For young people who are entering the 20’s now, this is really all they knew: Inflated expectations, ridiculous monthly consumer debt, and the idea that you don’t need to save for the future because you can just count on the equity in your house. But, when the bubble bursts, the paradigm shifts. For young people now, they are really looking around and seeing the world as being a very different place. For older people, it can be a lot more traumatic to have this happen, but for young people, they’re more ready to maybe accept that change.
And so, if you look at ‘The Greatest Generation’ that came of age during the depression and then entered World War II, they were able to achieve at incredibly high levels and get a great education. That legacy of the depression, obviously it was very hard for a lot of people, but it also led to realistic attitude about money, and a very practical down to earth determination to try to succeed, and some strong family-oriented values. I think that I’m starting to see the beginning of that among this generation. People are saying, ‘Well, you know, this idea of endless wealth and greed, it’s not something I really want to sign up for.’ Young people are forced to consider, at a very young age, what is really important to them and what they really want to have because they know they can’t have it all.”
So, really, this is good for us?
“From a purely economic point of view, I think it could be [good for us]. It’s a mixed bag, right? Because on the one hand, the drama that you enter into upon graduation, it actually can determine your salary for years to come. So if you start in a down market or you have to take a job that’s not exactly matching your skills, it could have a long term effect on your income. But on the flip side, if you get into a habit of saving very early, you have the magic of compound interest on your side, plus you develop lifelong healthy financial habits.”
So, in the end, a generation known for being spoiled, having unrealistic expectations about work, and graduating university with an inflated sense of entitlement might actually end up being the “sensible generation.” I would add to Anya’s analysis the notion this will be a generation that will trust corporations even less than previous generations and will be more adamant in demanding integrity from their corporate and government leaders.
And while I hope all of this is true, I also know that there is a layer of insulation between the Net Gen and the economy: their parents. The extent to which many Net Geners will feel the impact of the economy is also dependent upon how well their Boomer parents are able to weather the storm and continue to provide for adult children that may still be living in their basements. Given that many Boomers are being forced to delay retirement, I would say the insulation is getting thin. In fact, if pensions shrivel up and forced retirements put a strain on the family coffers, the Net Generation may even have their own basements occupied by Boomer parents that need caring for in old age. I’m sure there is an entire school of psychology devoted to that topic, so I won’t even get started.