Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 11:05PM
Commiserating with a friend the other day, a young journalist just getting started in her career and worried about her prospects, she lamented that her generation, the millennials, was expected to be the first to do worse than their parents. Whatever we call them -- some are calling them "Generation Z" , while others are calling them Generation R, for Recession -- you don't have to look far for examples of this lament.
Here's a line from a 2011 issue of Unlimited Magazine: "There’s a lot of speculation that Generation Me, the Millenials, will be the first generation to do worse than their parents, because they’ve always been provided for. They don’t have anything driving them to do better."
A Joe Queenan column from a 2010 Wall Street Journal: "Economists theorize that this may be that very rarest of things: a generation that does not do as well financially as the generation that spawned it."
My friend Jason Kirby used it in 2009 for Maclean's. Here's Anya Kamenitz, discussing her 2007 book Generation Debt: "The whole premise of Generation Debt the book is, you know, what does it mean to be part of this generation, the first generation that's going to do worse than our parents did."
But maybe it isn't Millennials who are so cursed. From a 1999 edition of the Atlantic: " In fact, Xers may well be the first generation whose lifetime earnings will be less than their parents'."
I knew I'd heard it somewhere before. "The first generation to do worse than their parents." It's a line from Douglas Coupland's Generation X, published in 1991. It was my bible; I used that line as an excuse for not getting a job the summer I graduated into the deepest recession in Canada in a decade. Unsurprisingly, Bill Clinton used the line when he announced his run for president in 1991: "I refuse to stand by and let our children become part of the first generation to do worse than their parents".
But hold the phone, Xers! Put down that copy of Trainspotting! You don't have a monopoly on intergenerational indignation. Here's a line from a 1980 Newsweek report on "An Economic Dream in Peril":
"And no longer do Americans share the great expectations of generations past. For the first time, public-opinion polls show that the average U.S. citizen is not at all sure that his children's lot will be better than – or even as good as – his own."
But at least we can agree on one thing: Whoever is doing worse, the baby boomers made out like bandits. Since they drank everyone's milkshake in the sixties and seventies, every generation since has been doing crappier and crappier. Right? Surely we can get all Soylent Green on the people who gave us Freedom 55 and Zoomer magazine?
Maybe not. According to the March 2011 New York Times: "The baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents."