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Money Matters

If this generation is preoccupied with money, it is because money is harder to come by

Traders, New York Stock Exchange, stock rates, stocks

Traders on the New York Stock Exchange look at stock rates during one of the most frantic days in the exchange's history on October 19th, 1987.

MARIA BASTONE/AFP/Getty

ON THE SURFACE, THEY SEEM contented and optimistic — happy with their work and confident of future success. Asked to rate their satisfaction with various aspects of their lives, 47 percent of those surveyed said they were extremely satisfied with their jobs, and 63 percent said they were extremely satisfied with their prospects of getting ahead in the future. Beneath the surface, however, there would seem to be real anxiety.

This surfaced when people were asked about their economic well-being. Only 31 percent said they were satisfied that they were financially secure; 17 percent were extremely dissatisfied.

The most telling insight derives from what they said about their own incomes. Their median household income was $28,000, but what they said they needed to live comfortably, free of money worries, was about $38,500. In other words, they would be okay if somehow they could collect sixteen monthly paychecks for every twelve months of work.

The popular stereotype offered by the news media — the free-spending yuppie couple with two paychecks and an insatiable desire for goods — is just wrong. Most people in this generation said they would settle for what they describe as an unsophisticated lifestyle, a home and a car and savings for the future. They view themselves as working harder than their parents did. Forty-eight percent feel it is more difficult to earn a comfortable living now than when their parents were their age. Fifty-three percent said they were more career oriented than they expected to be. But only 30 percent are extremely satisfied with their incomes, and 24 percent are extremely dissatisfied.

The pressures seem most intense among middle-income blue-collar workers, who work in industries blighted in the 1980s, and among divorced or widowed parents who are struggling to maintain their family’s standard of living on a single paycheck in an era when it takes two. The divorced group thinks its income is about 50 percent short of what it needs. The 12 percent at the bottom who feel absolutely deprived include large numbers of black people.

There are, of course, real yuppies, with joint incomes in six digits and a BMW in the driveway. But more typical are the middle-income couples who worry about the most basic things in their economic future. Will they have enough savings for retirement? Though still young, 44 percent are already concerned about that. Will they be able to make ends meet? Thirty-eight percent are afraid they won’t. Can they save enough to send their kids to college? Forty-one percent worry about the answer.

These anxieties are not surprising, considering what has been happening to the economy in the last decade — persistently high unemployment, the loss of high-wage blue-collar jobs, shrinking home ownership among younger families, declining incomes when discounted for inflation. Any number of economic studies have documented that the generation coming of age in the last twenty years is not as well off as its parents were or even as its older brothers and sisters were.

While this generation seems vaguely aware of these depressing portents, in general it seems to deny these tough new financial realities. Though many of the respondents said they must now work harder than their parents did to provide a comfortable living, and need two paychecks to maintain that standard, 60 percent said they still expected to be better off than their parents when they reach their parents’ age.

The issue of downward mobility may be the most volatile one facing this generation: are they going to share in the same American dream as past generations? The statistical evidence is that the members of this generation are already falling behind, forced to settle for less. But most still insist that it isn’t so. What is ominous is the fact that more and more of them have come around to a gloomier outlook on this question as they have gotten older — suggesting youthful optimism fades the longer one is confronted with disappointments. While 65 percent of those under twenty-five years old feel they will be financially better off at their parents’ age than their parents are, only 57 percent of those aged thirty-five to forty-four feel that way.

The money pressures are further revealed when this generation expresses its desires for changes in the working world. At the top of the list is comparable-worth pay for women, endorsed by 38 percent. Next important is employer-provided day care for children of working parents (chosen by 27 percent). Another 26 percent want to see Japanese imports reduced. And 23 percent selected an old goal of organized labor that is not even on the public agenda for debate: the thirty-hour work week.

While some of these objectives seem remote at present, they reveal an important dimension of the economic anxieties felt by men and women in two-wage-earner families: they are desperate for time as well as money. With both parents working to keep up, they feel their ability to attend to family relationships and to their own personal needs is being squeezed.

When they were asked how they would spend the time if they had an extra hour in the day, the responses were mostly about nurturing themselves or being with people close to them. No one mentioned work or politics or civic activities. Forty-five percent said they would spend the hour on recreational activities, including 13 percent who said they would enjoy more reading. Twenty-six percent said they would devote the time to family and friends. And 15 percent said they would spend the extra hour alone.

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