You know how when you take out money from an ATM, you usually have the option of getting a receipt or not? I never choose to take the receipt. This is not because I want to save paper in an effort to be environmentally conscious or something. I mean, really. Environmentally conscious? How can I take care of something as big as the whole environment when I can't even face up to what number might spit out at me on a slick piece of paper from a machine that I ask to speak to me in French so that I won't really know what secrets it holds? All I want is my $40, plus fees. I don't want anything else, including the knowledge of how much money I have (or don't have) at my disposal. That knowledge is too much responsibility for me. But so what I'm wondering is, am I alone in this? Are there actually adults out there who like to know how much money is in their checking account? Or, wait. To take it a step further, are there actually adults out there who have savings accounts? That contain more than the minimum amount? Do these financial unicorns really exist?
Well, yes. These adults do in fact live among the rest of us mere mortals. And good for them! They should definitely feel proud. The thing is though, that those people with a comfortable economic cushion—you know, the kind of cushion that means if you were out of work for a year or so you could live solely off your savings—are a rarity. A new survey by Bankrate.com reports that "fewer than one in four Americans have enough money in their savings account to cover at least six months of expenses...50% of those surveyed have less than a three-month cushion and 27% had no savings at all." Even more troubling is the fact that the survey showed that despite "an increase in job security, a higher net worth and an overall better financial situation" in the past three years, Americans rarely have more than a hundred dollars stashed away for emergencies. Which, I don't know exactly how it is in the rest of the country, but here in New York, the only emergency that a hundred dollars will get you through is one in which you absolutely must go out and have dinner at Aska or something. And I like a beautifully curated tasting menu as much as the next person, but I'd hardly call that an emergency.
It's strange, probably, that I can be so flippant about my own economic irresponsibility, while also being fully aware of how devastating it would be for me if I went to the ATM one day, tapped the button that says français and then proceeded to find out, in words that I only vaguely understand, that there was no money to be had, that I was running on empty. But I'm also fully aware that my type of irresponsibility is a privilege, one that is a combination of luck and hard work, one that I both earned and fell into. This privilege doesn't involve massive amounts of money (thus my ongoing ATM-phobia) but it does involve a certain amount of freedom and independence, both of which are things that modern adults are supposed to crave, right? Right?
Except that freedom is a funny thing these days, especially when it comes to the historically unparalleled levels of independence that young people enjoy. In "Young and Isolated," an Op-Ed in the Times, Jennifer Silva writes what it means to be an adult in a time when "only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later." Many of the young adults Silva spoke with are living transitory lives, ones in which the only concrete marker that they are adults is their chronological age. These are people who "drop out of college because they can’t figure out financial aid forms or fulfill their major requirements; rely on credit cards for medical emergencies; and avoid romantic commitments because they can take care of only themselves." These are people who spend seven years in college only to graduate with a communications degree and find that, at the age of 28, they're unemployable. These are people who have tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, but can only get a job at Dunkin Donuts, and are pretty sure that they were just "born to make coffee."
The interesting thing about these young adults, who perhaps in another time or another place, would be radicalized and try to change the systemic problems that have increased the disparity in wealth distribution and made it next to impossible for blue-collar workers to make more than subsistence wages, is that many of them seem to blame no one so much as they blame themselves. Silva speaks with one 28-year-old man who says, “At the end of the day looking in the mirror, I know where all my shortcomings come from. From the things that I either did not do or I did and I just happened to fail at them.” Which, while a fine sentiment in theory, doesn't leave much of a margin for error if this man continues to "fail." And it also, Silva notes, "leaves little empathy to spare for those who cannot survive on their own." In other words, freedom and self-sufficiency are pretty great in principle, but what those concepts seem to have led to is a time when the majority of our citizenry have no financial safety net and no desire to depend on anything larger than themselves.
One of my favorite movies that I've seen in a while is Frances Ha. I spoke with director Noah Baumbach about the film and about the character of Frances, who is at times hapless and always figuring out where it is she wants to go in life. She also has an awkward encounter with an ATM, but that's not really relevant right now. When I spoke with Baumbach, I mentioned how generously Frances was portrayed and he said, "it was very clear to me that the character—that Frances—should be protected by the film in a way, and also kind of honored...for this person at this time, what she’s going through are big things." And Frances—who is imperfect and lovely and bad with money and navel-gazing and smart and funny—ends up ok. She has bumps along the road, (and her ending might be happy, though it isn't perfect), but she ends up ok, because she is surrounded by friends and loved ones, people who support her and allow her to make mistakes. In fact, when Frances turns inward, when she assumes the full burden of the bad choices she's made, when she pushes people away, that's when she flounders. It's when she works within the community that she's built and the relationships she's fostered that she can grow.
Obviously, Frances Ha is a movie, and all contemporary young adults don't exist in the loving and protective gaze of Noah Baumbach—although it'd be great if we did, because, damn, does he ever know how to light an actress! However, it is definitely something to think about, the importance of having someone or something external (like, say, our government in the form of universal healthcare and a guaranteed living wage) look out for you. Rare is the person who can walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon without a harness, and really, why would you want to be that dude anyway? That's an unnecessarily terrifying thing to do. There's enough scary stuff that we have to get through without taunting death in that manner. Tempting as it is to go it alone sometimes, and have no one there to see your failures, it also means you'll no one to support you if you need a hand. The best path to a secure future for our country is not to rely solely on encouraging exceptionalism and some vague idea of independence, but to establish a sense of community that reaches beyond social media and into the realm of our actual society. Then, maybe, the pervasive isolation that is the hallmark of millennials can be replaced by a feeling that we're all in this together, different though our individual roles may be.
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