Living beyond their means?

By KARA BASKIN  |  June 17, 2009

Much has been written about these so-called Millennials, the spawn of helicopter parents who indulged their offspring's passions and told them they could be anything — anything! — they wanted to be. (I'm not judging — Christ, I'm one of 'em.) But make no mistake: these are not the poor, short-sighted slobs you see charging big-screen TVs at Best Buy with maxed-out credit cards. This is the Teflon generation — a non-reactionary, discriminating group for whom work is not just a paycheck. It is fulfilling. Frightening headlines and economic hardships are something to be studied, managed, and, perhaps on occasion, fretted about, but life continues to go on. A temporarily unpalatable reality is not going to get in the way — be it on a Friday night or a Monday morning.

"I kind of do feel like my life is on pause," admits Doug, my companion for the evening, who is 30 and just finished business school. He's now unemployed — only 10 percent of his graduating class currently have job offers. Right now, he's living at home with his parents. Still, he grins easily, casting an appreciative glance or two at the lissome women who glide past our table. "But I see this as an opportunity. The economy isn't something I can control. So I have to make the most of it. I consider myself extremely employable. Maybe I'll just have to use my skills in an industry I wasn't expecting to go into, that's all. I have time to figure it out."

Uncommon sense
And that's just it. Politicians and economists might solemnly caution us that sacrifice and tough times are ahead, but thanks to the protection of youth, many in the Teflon set are insulated from any true pain. Last week, the US unemployment rate teetered at 9.4 percent, its highest level in more than 25 years. As of this month, the recession is the longest since World War II. Every sector (aside from health care and education) has posted record job losses. The American financial system is shifting and cracking, birthing demons like Bernie Madoff, who's now loathed with a kind of fervor once reserved for annoying American Idol contestants. The media is telling us to be nervous. And, hell, maybe common sense should tell us to be nervous.

Then why aren't we? Because despair and hand-wringing are reserved for people with real problems — people with families to support and bills to pay. For the young and fairly well-connected, the current downturn might just mean more time to contemplate what we really want to do with our lives. Satisfaction and fulfillment remain the end goal, not the desire to land a paycheck — any paycheck — just to get by.

"I'm actually excited by all this," Doug tells me. "I have decades to figure my life out. I don't have kids. I don't have a family. The people who are really hurting are the people without skills, and people with families. I'm not married. My brother, he's married, he has kids. If he lost his job, I'd feel bad for him. I don't feel sorry for myself at all."

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