We, the thirty-somethings of the First World, are cynical. We have every right to complain. I mean, we followed their instructions perfectly. We took all of their tests. And we were failed.
A college education wasn’t supposed to be privilege. It was an endowment, one that was suppose to unlock even greater entitlements. The 20th century’s advice to us: Don’t look at the price tag. Just show up.
A college education was supposed to be another chapter is the great American story. College grads were supposed to get hired, work forty hours a week, and live happily ever after.
It was never supposed to happen like this. Entry-level knowledge workers weren’t supposed to graduate into vacuums. We weren’t supposed to have to sell our individual worth. Or work harder with each successive year in employment. Or go through companies like shoes.
We even “invested” just like they told us to.
We took the stock medicine on HR brochures. We couldn’t argue with the rationale of older generations who had discovered a too-good-to-be-true alternative to their failing, paternalistic pension plans:
Someone who starts investing early will be much better off than someone who starts late. Sign up for your 401(k)! Contribute early. Contribute often. Diversify! Diversify! Diversify! Fly your cash-laden helicopter over thousands of companies and throw them them all a few bucks. You don’t need to know their name. Sit back, and let the invincible 20th century stock market pump out set-your-watch-by-it ten percent a year returns.
Those brochures got one thing right. Buried in them, somewhere in the mice type, was an eloquent out—one that might haunt our generation forever: “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.”
We can’t even shake the past. For most of Generation C, the first dollar we put in our 401(k) is worth, more or less, a dollar. As we wrap up the first third of our journey from entry level to the fabled age of retirement, we’re still waiting on that ten percent a year.
* * *
They told us that Cs were good enough.
Make average grades in school, go to an average state school, and get an average job paying the same salary as the average guy in your class. Consume at least as much as your average neighbor, and invest the rest in index funds that earn average returns.
So we did.
Then suddenly, average went from passing to failing. The Middle Class became the Nouveau Poor. And the harder we tried to stay in the middle, the more we became indentured servants to the American Dream. Our average mortgage payments began consuming our entire Middle Class paychecks.
* * *
We are the luckiest generation so far.
We still have plenty of life left to rewrite our own great American story and act it out individually on a world stage that’s never had more side doors. And we will.
We will rediscover what it means to be a self.
Rather than be failed, we will fail. And we will learn. We will never stop learning. We will die improving.
We will acknowledge that investing starts with saving, and we will stop confusing the two. We will stop calling ourselves “investors” if all we do is mindlessly plow money into a phony pension plan that spits out the average of every financial whim on the planet.
We will stop feeding the engine and become the engine.
We will learn to diversify our income, not imaginary wealth. We will learn that monthly credits to our checking accounts are worth more than bar charts on paper statements.
We won’t sit on cash, though. We will invest. In the best option we have: ourselves. We will realize that cash combined with our own work ethic produces far greater and controllable returns than cash commingled with faith in companies we know nothing about.
We will produce.
We will start businesses—from incorporations to menial sole proprietorships. We won’t ask permission; we will assume the ailing factory’s forgiveness.
We will occupy our passions and not whine at the doorstep of political and private-turned-public institutions incapable of internal change.
Value creation will happen naturally as C realizes its collective individuality. We will add value, not pray someone else does for us. Because we will make things along the way to making something of ourselves.
C will end up anything but average. C will be for comeback.