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College Graduates: Bright Future or Economic Doom?

As college commencements are celebrated across the country this month, parents get ready for the big move back home by these new graduates. The question that worries many Baby Boomer parents is whether the economic storm will pass without causing long-term damage. Are adult children destined to live with less economic and career promise than we, their parents,  faced?  If the first ten years of the new century were, as dubbed by Time magazine, the “Decade from Hell,” then what will we call the next ten years?

Apparently some parents kept those rose-colored glasses from their own graduations during the flower power era.  A new survey of Baby Boomers found that the coming decade is viewed–with respect to our adult children–as either the “Decade of Hope” or the “Decade of Great Change.”  And long term, almost 75 percent of  parents believe that their young adult children will equal or surpass their own economic success.

Those findings were reported in the Charles Schwab’s 2010 Families & Money Survey which polled adults who have at least one child between the ages of 23-28.

The parents were optimistic despite that 41 percent provide some financial support to their young adult children, and expect to do so until their children are 30 or older.  The reasons:

Parents cite college debt (32 percent) and unemployment (31 percent) as top reasons their children are relying on them more. However, they also believe that some contributing financial pressures fall squarely within the kids’ control. Parents also cite overspending (25 percent) and consumer debt (19 percent) as reasons for their kids’ delayed independence.

Indeed almost half the parents surveyed believe their adult children need to learn to stick to a budget and live within their means. Who is to blame for the fact that many don’t? The parents who funded the luxe lifestyle for the last two decades or the adult children who now feel they can’t live without those goodies?

To see this entitlement in action, check out the TV reality show “Say Yes to the Dress” which is filmed at that shrine to wedding dresses,  Kleinfeld’s.  In one recent episode a Gen Y bride stalked out of the store because her mother would not budge beyond her $3,000 price limit for the $9,000 designer dress the young woman simply had to have. (Kudos to the future mother-in-law too who watched grimly and refused to chip in.)  The show, as addictive as chocolate, is a fascinating sociological study of mothers and daughters in action.  The salespeople know they have two customers: the bride looking for the “perfect” dress and her mother who is supposed to pay the bill. The real action starts when the mother says no to the $$$ dress. How can parents lament that the adult children won’t stick to a budget and live within their means when they are willing to spend $3,000 for a dress that’s worn once?

 No new grad will be spending $3,000 on a dress, according to a caustic commentary by author (and Gen Y parent) Joe Queenan.  In “A Lament for the Class of 2010,”  Queenan takes the opposite view from the parents in the Schwab survey.  Noting that 17 percent of people aged 20 to 24 are unemployed, Queenan writes of new graduates in The Wall Street Journal:

They will enter a world where they will compete tooth and nail for jobs as waitresses, pizza delivery men, file clerks, bouncers, trainee busboys, assistant baristas, interns at bodegas.

 He also laments that our coddled adult children are ill-prepared emotionally to face the brave new world of work:

 In the workplace, you don’t get to pick your company. In the workplace, you do not get a trophy just for showing up. In the workplace, the boss gets to scream at you as a perk. Probably your first day on the job. Your boss, who doesn’t have an iPad, isn’t on Facebook, and doesn’t know how to text. Your boss, who doesn’t particularly care for Lady Gaga. Your boss, who probably has a night-school degree.

 While there might be certain amount of hyperbole here, Queenan is not far off the mark.  A twentysomething acquaintance recently called to complain about her boss and wondered if it was too soon to quit her job. “When did you start the job?” I asked.  Less then two months was the answer.  “Hang in there for a while longer, maybe even a year or two,” I advised. “Most people don’t like their first boss; it’s normal.”  This young woman did not have a pampered lifestyle; she was simply reflecting the attitude of her generation.

So faced with Gen Y and their sometimes skewed attitudes toward work and money, what is a reasoned attitude toward their future: doom and gloom or eternal optimism?  Author Denis Waitley might have the answer in his oft-quoted maxim:  “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.”

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