Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nuns, Guppies, and the American McDream

So there are no misunderstandings later on, I just need to be straight forward about something: I'm not 100% in love with the economy right now. We are on the fritz. I'm serious. I want to kick the economy in the shins. I want to insult the economy's mother. I want to have a party and not invite the economy. If Kanye wants to interrupt the economy's acceptance speech for Suckfest of the Century, I'm okay with that. *steps off soap box*

I don't know about you, but I was pretty miffed when the market began to plummet at an accelerated pace last fall; not particularly anxious or fearful, but definitely annoyed. You were probably right there with me as we watched Wall Street nosedive like a drunken bungee jumper on spring break; we covered one eye and looked down the ravine with the other, muttering with bated breath, "Is it supposed to take this long? I can't see him. Did he fasten the little hooky belay thing?, Ponzi fastened it for him. Is he gonna come back up eventually? Has he hit the bottom yet?.... How long is this supposed to take, guys? .... Guys?" But honestly... who needs drunken demonstrations of awful when you have the likes of AIG, Bernie Madoff and the Fed teaching How to Destroy Everything You Touch 101. We all paid over $700 billion for this lesson so we'd better pay attention.

For those of you from the class of 2009... we've been let loose into a job market where we are competing with people twice our age, with twice our experience, for bottom rung entry-level positions typically reserved for inexperienced recent college grads. We're like guppies from a fish tank replete with the plastic trees and the treasure chests and the other fishes from Planet Pets, getting dumped into the Amazon River where there are no little plastic scuba divers or treasure chests... only other, bigger, more experienced, slightly strung out fishes that eat everything... food, boats, trash, you. People with Ph.D's are applying for MI's, for Pete's sake. I applied for an administrative assistant position- along with 800 other applicants. I also applied for a waitressing job at a restaurant that received 50 applications on one day for a single job opening that wasn't even advertised. A friend of mine who just finished his first year of law school last May was explaining the process of applying for internships; they made him jump through flaming hoops (literally... I know, freaky) and wanted everything but his spleen and firstborn. All this to be considered for an unpaid position. As he put it, "I've never had to work so hard to convince someone to let me work for them for free!" 

I had a conversation with someone recently about the nature of work, and how discouraging it can be... for many, it seems that no matter how lifeless and pointless our work might seem, it is necessary for survival. We slave away at seemingly menial tasks... filing paperwork, cleaning pools, parking cars, piloting commercial flights, de-paper jamming printers, drawing up contracts and lesson plans, selling, selling, selling... trying to convince everyone that they need what we've got. And if they don't need it... well, they should want it, and they shouldn't be happy until they have it. I quipped that in this light... the light that exposes us chasing after the carrot, baby-stepping to 5 o'clock so that we can go and do the things that we really enjoy but can't get paid to do... in this light, work is almost evil; a curse, the opposite of joy and prosperity and freedom, the abundant life's wicked stepmother. I was being facetious of course, but then I realized... it's kind of true. You know the curse I'm talking about: Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you shall eat the plants of the field."(Genesis 3:17-18) Certainly it's a bit metaphoric because few of us are working in an agricultural setting anymore (and don't you think that's a shame?), but you get the point. "Life and work are going to be a lot tougher. You'll work longer hours and get fewer returns. Your boss will hound you, you'll kill yourself trying to get that holiday bonus, and your kids will constantly complain that all their friends have Guitar Hero and they don't... and you're ruining their life-uh!" I think that's the Message version. 

Before I continue, I should clarify that this is not an indictment of our economic system, because despite current circumstances, the free market economy is the best system ever developed. Unlike Marxism, which is a joke, and mercantilism (think 18th century England and modern China... weighed, measured, and found wanting), capitalism works. Societies thrive because of it. In the best of circumstances - i.e., free of protectionism, interventionism, and alltheotherisms -  it benefits all parties involved. But it capitalizes on our wanting more; it is contingent upon our restlessness, our dissatisfaction, our malcontentment. Money isn't the problem...  if it were, redistribution would be sufficient. No- LOVE of money is the problem (duh, right?). But contrary to what utopian philosophizers and the communist manifesto would have us believe, no amount of government programs/programming can weed out the greed, because government can't better people. In dealing with the major root issues that actually plague us, people ultimately have only one hope- Jesus. But lets not make that into an argument for theocracy, because that's certainly not what I'm saying. And I'm also not saying that we're on a one way train to Doomsville; after all, necessity is the mother of invention. We are in need, and it is an exciting time to see what entrepreneurial methods of thriving people will come up with as a response to this adversity. But our current situation certainly makes you stop and think.

For my part, I do find that consumerism runs contrary to my intrinsic desire to live simply. Not that I want to be poor. Who wants to be poor? Nuns maybe. If I were to embrace a minimalist mentality, I might say something like "All you need is love"... or "All you need is good food, good music, and good company." I think there are many who feel the same way; certainly many from my generation. I recently had a discussion with a friend at a wedding about this very topic. About priorities and aspirations and the sorts of things that we might find fulfilling. And nothing that we came up with seems to fit the mold of anything that we've seen in contemporary society. We both had the sense that there is something more. Perhaps something previously dismissed as peripheral. I have many older friends and acquaintances who've lived long enough in the American McDream, and are no longer enticed by the house and 2 car garage, regardless of how low mortgage rates are. Now, this American Dream started out nobly enough... everyone with enough to support his family and live comfortably in freedom. That's honest! That's good! God bless those aspirations, for those who desire it. 

But I don't quite want that.  At least I don't think I do. I want to be unfettered; Suburbia scares me. Of course I'm young and unattached, so I don't have a family to think about; an older, married, mommy version of me might say "All you need is good food, good music, and good company.... and a house and a large savings account, just in case." All of it is intended to create a feeling of security... but security is a notion of human invention, anyway. It isn't found in nature! Of course there is wisdom in financial scrupulousness. But manmade security is a mirage. As the chimp from Babe, Pig in the City would put it: "Its illusory. It's ill, and its for losers." And on the topic of security, other hefty questions come into play. Am I so intently stalking security because I simply don't trust the Lord's provision? When does this fall into the realm of leaning on our my understanding? Someone once told me, "Fear is the antithesis of faith." Well, God went out of His way to say "fear not" 365 times in the Word. How can I help but see this financial meltdown as an opportunity!? An opportunity to approach the throne with more boldness? An opportunity for the Lord to do something big! If God is who I believe Him to be, there is a goldmine of untapped, unfamiliar providence awaiting me on the horizon. It might not be what I am expecting or looking for, (green papery stuff) but He hasn't forgotten me. Any of us. Blessed assurance.

note: I really wanted a compelling image to be placed here... something that would convey fearlessness and faith and stuff. But when I googled "fearless," I was inundated with images of Taylor Swifts cover from her latest album... So for the record I just want to say that I think Beyonce's album cover was the best album cover, and it really deserved to be featured.


Jeremy said...

First of all Hil, I saw no bibliography for the mass of quotes that you added from the Beatles and various other Historical figures. What did we go to college for?

Secondly, I Agree with much of what you said. Having faith in God is what is really important in times like these when finances and the stress of the economic hubbub can get overwhelming. Having a minimalistic lifestyle can be amazing. That is especially true when you are forced into it by the outcome of our worldly choices and the will of God. Times like these are meant to gain trust in God. We need to find the simplicity, basis and foundation of what our relationship with God is all about. I feel like God really does use these times to bring people together and bring people closer to Him.

Thirdly, there are a few things that I don’t agree with. A while back, Warren Buffett spoke about the current economic position. Bankruptcies aside, I agree with him. Though it may be hard to find that perfect job, much less a mediocre one to get by on; now is the best time for people in their 20’s. Most of us are either single or newly married, just entering the job force, don’t own a home and have no investments. What better place to be right? Ha, sounds crazy, but in all reality, would you rather be 60 years old with a home that was worth 500k last year and is now worth somewhere around the 300k area or be looking to buy soon in a market where all of the homes are on sale? Would you rather have a retirement savings plan that was healthy and flourishing off of “the” longest bull market run in the nation’s history, only to realize that you didn’t meet with your financial advisor soon enough to plan and see half of it go down the drain 4 years before retirement, or be 24 and know that you are starting your retirement savings plan at a time where you can dollar cost average in at a time when everything is on sale? As a woman especially, how can you oppose a sale?

Lastly, be thankful and know that this downturn in the market is something that has happened in the past and it will happen again in the future. See the opportunity that we have been given as a generation of fighters and trailblazers. I don’t know about you, but looking back at my life, that is exactly what I have been a part of. Call us a generation of guinea pigs if you want, but we seemed to always be the ones who had jobs, programs, technology and change tested out on us. We are seeing something new. The only difference now is that it has been so long since something like this has happened in the past that people forgot how to deal with it. Out of all of those tests, we have found a way to adapt, change the system or even prosper out of each. We are a generation with information at our fingertips and that is a tool that we should heed and take advantage of. If we are smart, and I consider you one of the most intelligent people I know, then we will find a way to make the best out of something that seems so frustrating in the here and now.

Okay, that’s all. I’m done with my rant. Hope you’re doing well. I love you and miss your face.

The end.

HBM said...

Thanks Jeremy. :) Leave it to our resident financial advisor. I didn't quote any historical figures though... but I'll let that one slide. Although I don't see how we disagree. Obviously we both concur that this trying time is both temporary and fraught with opportunity. Which is why I said "How can we help but see this financial meltdown as an opportunity!?" While I did say it in the context of having faith in the Lord's provision, I don't mean that we are just supposed to sit around and wait for Him to drop a relief package into our laps. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we are being given an opportunity to be entrepreneurial in really exciting ways, I think. Maybe I didn't make that clear, but that is exactly how I see our circumstances: frustrating but filled with opportunities, and a chance to reevaluate our preoccupations and the little glass houses we build for ourselves. We're fortunate in many ways to be young at a time like this... but it's still really difficult to find a job. That was my primary point. And I don't see how you were disagreeing with me... maybe you can clarify what you disagree with?

Jeremy said...

Okay, it is late and I may have read a few keywords as did instead of didn't. You make several good points and it is nice to see someone without a doomsday mentality talk about the situation at had.