[long one, rambles some, goes on a topic slant by the end – you’ve been warned]
I don’t want to get into a big political, socio-economic debate, but simply wanted to share my personal experiences with trying to rachet-up each generation and the likelihood of that. Obviously, social programs, education, and parental choices play a huge role in this (to go from poverty to even middle-class is a big step), but each situation is individual. The start of our life’s version of Monopoly is the hand we’re dealt at birth. After that, it’s up to your social environment and inherent drive and opportunities to determine the path you take.
While I have no idea on the social-economic mix of my readers, I’m guessing most are of middle-class families, trying to do what’s best for their them and their brood. Obviously, we’re cut from the same cloth. My wife and I made our fair share of mistakes, but have made traction the last few years big time. The biggest reason we have generally been successful and have made improvement from our original birth lot: education, hard work, good jobs, and good decisions. Oh, and maybe a little luck, but mostly the aforementioned not lucky things. Plus, marrying the right person and being in a stable, loving relationship, which will likely help our kids. Like you, one of our main goals is to have our kids life be happier/easier/better than our own. Just like past generations. We feel lucky for the opportunities we were given, and hope to impart knowledge and skills and perspectives to our own children. Like most people, some of our relatives either weren’t given the opportunity, or didn’t adhere to the perspective, and ended up at the same level (or worse) than their roots. This is a brief illustration of how your lot in life isn’t defined at birth. I’m sure some of you have more interesting or better stories than mine, I’d love to hear them (privately or in comments).
My Grandparents – My grandmother is a Native American tribal elder. Raised as a half-indian orphan, she was adopted into a farming family, and came from the humblest of roots. Native American’s are some of the poorest in our country. I spent a summer internship working for the Indian Health Services, and despite federal aid and income from casinos, most are well below the poverty line. My grandmother was fortunate in some ways to live close to the reservation with her ancestral roots, but marry into a stable farming family. My grandfather was a farmer, raised in a stable but poor family. My grandfather inherited the family farm and raised 6 kids. Christmases at my grandparents were magical when I was a kid, and despite the reality of the situation, it seemed like we were showered with gifts. The love and camaraderie at family dinners was palpable, and I have the fondest of memories helping on the farm when we visited. But knowing what I know now, they were really struggling to get by, even after my dad had relocated. Dealing with pricing of milk, silage, and farming on a small family farm is rarely easy. My aunt and uncle took over the family farm a couple of decades ago, and my grandparents currently live in a family-owned farm house with social security and the small tribal stipend as their sole source of income. They are still generous and loving and instilled great life lessons into us, though never really had a pot to piss in.
My mother’s parents did not come from noble beginnings either. My great-grandfather was a moonshiner in prohibition days, and my grandfather and his brother got stopped by Al Capone’s men at the border saying it would be his last delivery to the Chicagoland area. My grandfather worked odd jobs, while raising a family of 10 (8 kids) with a homemaker (as was customery back then) in a 3 or 4 bedroom apartment, then house. They were stacked on top of stacked. My mother talked about how she had to wear old socks held up by rubberbands because they couldn’t afford new ones, and whips out historic old poor meals like goulash and cabbage and potatoes on occasion from her childhood.
Holly’s Grandparents – I don’t know as much about my wife’s ancestry except that her mother’s mom died at a young age, and like my own grandmother was raised by her aunt who was motherlike, though poor. They had a bunch of kids too, though whatever happened after the death of her mom fractured my mother-in-laws family. Holly’s father’s parents owned a farm that had been passed down in the generation. Hard work and frugality was the norm. Not much love was provided by her grandmother, a tough bitter diamond til the day she died, but her grandfather was warm-hearted, strong willed, and had a great sense of humor (apparently. He died before I met him). They too had a large family (5 kids if I remember right), and despite being land rich, they didn’t have a lot of extra money.
My Parents – My mom and dad are still together, and moved away from the local region where they were raised around the time they married to a moderately sized city. Most of their brethren stayed within shouting distance, and generally did ok for themselves. My dad was a mailman (hated his job for a long time, but felt locked in with the salary – a dangerous thing), who retired at 55 to a modest pension, and recently (at 65) to social security. Not wanting to let the excitement of life pass her by, my mom has worked at two nursing jobs the last 10 years, and her original one for 30 years before that. She worked part time so that we could have a hot breakfast and meet us afterschool, be present at our cub scouts and sporting events, and keep hot meals for my dad. We had stability, some nice extravagances at Christmas, but as I got older saw that we were in the bottom quartile in our community, a solid middle to upper-middle class suburb. Still, we had a nice childhood, and the hard work ethic from my parents upbringing were instilled in us, as was their frugal nature (though it took awhile to stick).
Holly’s Parents – Enjoying a nice middle-class lifestyle with the original Mr. Mustache, Holly was both comfortable but humble. Then her parents got divorced, the kids split up from each other (very odd, especially in today’s society), and spent her formative years holed up with her mom in small apartments and a spendthrift nature, somewhat impoverished. Her father had money, but was frugal and hardworking, not paying for college or any other benefits to my wife or her brothers. My father in law one of my favorite people, by the way. Her mother continued to make poor choices, frittering away her very modest paychecks on things she didn’t need (a habit that continues to this day), and having health issues that in part stemmed from poor diet choices. Retired now and leaving on a modest state pension and social security, she is a big part of our, and the kids’, life but isn’t a model to emulated.
Us – So starting at two generations ago, and depending on what you want out of life (agriculture and farming can be rewarding and/or lucrative, and has inherent life lessons and rewards/challenges), our families were prosperous in family alone, with a strong value system. The subsequent generation of our parents made small steps in income, while instilling a lot of the value system they saw. Today, my wife and I are both living in an area we never could have fathomed as kids, while still trying to impart those same values of hard work, family, humility, and service that were prevalent in our own lives. It’s far from a mansion, and while only 25 miles from where I grew up, offers many more opportunities should life allow them and the children take advantage. We are working our way to both monetary wealth as well as life wealth.
We are happy most days, and are satisfied with our lot in life. I’m sure my own grandparents were too, in their own way, but we’re certainly able to relax and work differently (less physical, more mental) to achieve the same goal, with (as is common in today’s society) more material things. Still, our favorite family activities remain reading, board games, and family movie night, while enjoying the fruits of our labor at the neighborhood pool or at friends house. I’m hoping that one day, with the opportunity to get educated with a reduced debt load and good advice (on Majors, on where to go to school, on what college is really intended for [vocational school, not party/social time]) that they’ll be able to raise that generational notch a little more.
The Future – I have an engineering degree and it is no secret that many days I hate not so much the job, but the clients I am forced to work with, which is a nice way to say many days I hate my job. Other jobs I haven’t liked that much either, at least after awhile (usually several years, for various reasons not related to the work itself). My wife also has a four year degree, but finds her work fairly satisfying and worthwhile. For us, at this stage in our life, our four year degrees have worked out monetarily and allowed us to start off on the right foot, regardless of what happens in the future. But in today’s world with rising college costs and lessening white collar work, I strongly promote the idea of alternate blue-collar, skilled trade work. And I’m not alone. Mike Rowe, and the Art of Manliness, have a great article on blue collar work. This is something I briefly mention in my book, but will flesh out much further for my own kids, the positives and negatives of this. Blue collar. White collar, both have the ability to be successful, and sometimes it is not an obvious choice.
Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though it’s wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?
When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society – I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose. I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,” he said. “Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.”
One of the best websites in the ‘Sphere on this topic is Apocalypse Cometh. Check out this, and this, and this, and this. If one day the posts aren’t there, they include things like electrician, welder, website designer, HVAC, Carpentry, Diesel Mechanic, other mechanic, interpreter. Being able to work at heights (and like it!) for transmission lines or bridge maintenance or wind tower repair will keep you in demand. In many ways, you’re better off taking a tech class at a tech college than going to college to get a History Degree (a fate narrowly avoided by my wife, who got a science degree and now makes more than me). Don’t be a sheeple with the other parents, for you or your kid. There is a lot of satisfaction in building something or keeping something alive, and not being burdened by a $100,000+ college debt because little Johnny or Jill has to major in sociology or business (just check out Worthless an admittedly great book on not picking a shitty major that are universally accepted as “good”). Just be (or have your kids be) themselves, learn on their own with their potential passions, and if it is one that needs to be fed by tuition then do it, otherwise: avoid the trapping of western society (i.e. buying lots of shit you don’t need, including a house), live and enjoy as much for free as you can, and save as much as you can. Instill this in the next generation and they’ll be 100x further along than their H.S. peers who followed the masses into hundreds of thousands into debt for a $30k per year job.
Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to have your kids be different. There are more ways to ratchet up your generational and offspring success than following the map that society provides. You and your offspring can grow in ways you can’t fathom. Don’t be afraid to teach that. One thing we’re already teaching our kids is the value of entrepreneurship and thinking outside the box. We’ll see how life unfolds. All options are open, but I will do my best to influence my kids’s choices so they won’t waste money on a degree that won’t pay off.
If interested in Music or the Arts (and many will disagree with me), by all accounts I will support that, but don’t believe a formal education is necessary to support a career or a passion in that. The chance to be Yo-Yo Ma (where such training is necessary) is so minuscule, and so obvious at a young age, that unless you have an obviously talented person in the arts (like winning state competitions by high school), don’t fall prey to the standard practice to a fine arts degree. Better off doing self study, figuring out website commerce, and starting your own business. Even if it fails, you’ll learn some actual skills that can relate to real world business, unlike a fine arts degree. And this from a dad who is paying for music lessons and hoping for a great musician. I am always a realist.
Obviously, this isn’t the shortest or most thought out post, but whatever. My family came from humble beginnings and now we’re making our own path…I hope the next generation’s success and values continue to grow, both mine and yours, whatever that may mean. Money does not equal happiness, nor is that the definition of success, but it does provide freedom and opportunity. That’s all. Have a nice weekend, and check out some Dirty Jobs on Netflix if you get the chance. Mike Rowe is awesome.