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Last of the lucky generation?

Published November 30. 2013 09:00AM

For decades, reaching for any part of the American dream almost guaranteed a better living standard than the previous generation.

For those willing to work hard and gain the needed education or training, the reward was usually having more than your parents did.

Those days might be over.

At least by anecdotal evidence, many kids today are having a hard time matching what their parents had.

A job that would last?

Not as easy to come by as in previous generations.

A guaranteed pension plan?

Gone with the wind.

Most firms today don't offer company funded pension plans.

Instead, many have 401K plans where the worker is expected to save for retirement. Didn't do it? Too bad. Hope you can live on Social Security, if you're lucky enough to get it.

"Forget pension plans and retirement. I can't even get a full-time job, much less benefits like my parents enjoyed," said Stephen, a 38-year-old man still waiting to get started.

Despite a college degree from a pricey college, he's working part time for a big box grocery store while he's looking for something in his field.

Meanwhile, he's living with his parents worrying about how he's going to pay off $60,000 in student loans.

What surprises me is that in my relatively small circle of friends, five say their adult children had to move back home because they can't afford their own place.

The biggest reason: No job. Unemployed or underemployed is a hard reality for many, including some in my own family.

The stories I hear from others all echo each other.

There's Marion who worked hard to get her MBA from Wharton School of Business. She had a six-figure job and thought she was set in life until she got laid off 18 months ago. With her savings gone, she still can't find another job and doesn't know how much longer she can hang on.

I didn't think about all this in any cohesive way until I interviewed a 48-year-old man who is operating a nonprofit thrift store sorely to help the homeless.

I figured anyone that young who was devoting himself to helping the homeless must have an interesting story to tell. I was right.

Mark said he lost everything. And in the process, he found himself, as well as a more meaningful life.

At one time Mark was a realtor and real estate investor, making money hand over fist.

"I had a fabulous five-bedroom house, three nifty cars in the garage and a big boat. I loved to throw parties and often had 60 people there," he says.

Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market. With no money coming in, Mark couldn't afford to keep his house.

"I lost everything - the bank took my house and the cars. I went from having everything to being homeless," he says.

When he couldn't get a job, he moved several states away to live with his father.

For many, it's a familiar story.

"We're all one pay check away from disaster," he says.

In the middle of the interview, he paused and said to me: "You know, you are probably part of the last lucky generation - the generation that achieved a better life than their parents did."

His father, he said, is a mechanic in Chicago. "I always assumed I would use my college degree to reach a higher standard of living than he had," Mark said.

Now, he believes his generation will never have any economic certainty.

"We're all finding it's tough to climb out of the hole," he says. "We can't even afford rent, much less buying a home like our parents did."

Unfortunately, Mark is probably right. Many of those of his generation don't have the economic comforts their parents had.

Decades ago, we easily could stay all our working lives with the same employer. That's fairly hard to do today. Lay offs, downsizing and company cutbacks preclude staying with the same employer for decades.

And Mark is right, too, when he says we might very well be the last generation to have the security of a company pension.

But something else sticks in my mind as a result of that interview with him.

He admits before the real estate market crashed he bought three cars.

Those of his parents' generation would never buy three cars for one driver. Nor would they spend lavishly by hosting parties for 60 people.

Instead, when they had money coming in, they would sock some of it away, knowing good times don't always last.

Remember, salaries were much lower "back then" but so were expectations. We didn't crave a lavish lifestyle as much as we craved a little financial security. And if that meant only saving $10 a month, at least it wasn't spending money that wasn't there.

Did I mention credit cards? To me, that's the major difference between generations. Before plastic became the payment of choice, we never bought what we couldn't pay for.

And when we bought a home, it didn't have to be grand. It just had to be securely ours, not something the bank could yank away from us. We tried to be careful in taking on debt.

Are we the last of the "lucky generation?"

Or, are we the last of those who did without when the cash wasn't there the last of those who didn't need instant gratification when we wanted something?

You tell me.

I'm interested in your opinion.

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