I sat down to lunch at a local restaurant, felt a bit annoyed, and then realized it was a symptom of youth. I was reminded that you’re only as old as your thoughts, regardless of what my joints are telling me as I type.
The world changed dramatically in the last thirty years. Russia was part of the Soviet Republic. Anyone talking about the environment was considered a hippy. Gas cost $1.21 per gallon. Computers were something that had to be explained. We knew we were going back to the Moon any year now. Financial crises revolved around double digit interest and inflation rates, but almost every transaction was still handled by certified professional humans.
Now, some are surprised that Russia is trying to rebuild the Republic. Almost all scientists are worried about not just environmental crisis but actual calamity. Gas costs over $4 at my local station. Computers are so ubiquitous that they are doing the explaining. We’re still going back the Moon, any decade now. Financial crises are taken as a norm, even though interest and inflation rates are near historic lows, and every crisis intimately includes computers. Individuals have more information than ever; but low cost services sometimes reflect getting what we pay for.
Two men sat at the next table. It was early, so no one else was in the place. They saw no reason to be quiet, so the volume went up on their rants about the conspiracy behind climate change, the poor work ethic of today’s employees, and a stream of commentary that I was happy to edit out as my business lunch partner arrived. I am very glad I know people with manners.
As easy as it would be to make even more fun of the two at the next table, I am also a fan of Freedom of Speech. They have a right to their opinions. And Comedy Central would’ve had a wonderful time exercising the Freedom of Speech and The Press by interviewing them.
What I kept in mind is something that I keep in mind with any conventional wisdom. Maybe what is said or claimed is valid if measured against its assumptions and era.
My favorite meteorologist is Prof. Cliff Mass from the University of Washington. He has a very popular blog that extends beyond the local weather. A while back he made the point that Western Civilization was much more sustainable, not because of technology but because of population. Back when there were only 2,000,000,000 people on the planet we had a much smaller effect. The year? 1930. As much as it is a Duh moment for many to realize that fewer people on the planet makes their civilization more sustainable, it also points out that for many people born in that era it is natural to assume that today’s claims of unsustainability are hyperbole. The system worked when they were young. If it doesn’t work now, it must be because the new generation isn’t as smart, resourceful, or hardworking.
A lot of financial advice is handed out based on conventional wisdom developed before 1980, in some cases before we dropped the Gold Standard. Get a degree whatever it takes. Work hard and you’ll get ahead. Devote yourself to a job and it will become a dependable career. Fit in. Buy the biggest house you can afford and grow into it, and then move up every few years. Look forward to a retirement with good benefits and no worries.
A millennial reading that last paragraph might think it is a parody. Student loan debt exceeds mortgage debt, frequently costs more than the career can repay, and can’t even be forgiven by bankruptcy. Working hard is a given, but getting ahead seems to be more about luck. Devoting yourself to a job implies the company won’t get bought out, you won’t get laid off, or some new technology won’t invalidate your schooling. Fit in? Fit into what? Nothing is static. Buying the biggest house you can afford may mean 128 square feet and on wheels (which, if you do it right is actually quite nice.) Move every few years? That’s what the wheels are for. As for retirement and benefits, what are they? Worries, well, they’re eternal.
I won’t say that I feel young. My back, hips, knees, eyes, et al cast their votes every day. But I was heartened to hear that I have some of the symptoms of youth, not that I am living a young person’s lifestyle; but I am glad that I am not as trapped by wisdom that only made sense when we, as a species, could be more foolish. Foolish is fun, but when it comes to the essentials of life it is wiser to be aware of current reality. And current reality is considerably different than 1984’s reality.
I offer my point of view and opinion as a point of departure for others who are redefining conventional wisdom.
- The climate is changing. I’ve seen more than enough of the data and witnessed too many of the effects to deny it. The systems analyses are scarier still which is why I’m not surprised when I hear that the change is accelerating faster than predicted.
- Energy is changing. I know more people with electric vehicles or hybrids than people with pickup trucks. The list of bicyclists is too long to write down. Solar, wind, and efficiency are becoming the norm.
- I don’t know anyone under the age of 60 who wants a bigger house. Tiny houses are appealing for many reasons, and I even have friends who not only live in them, but also help others build them.
- Space is commercializing, yeah. But too late for my career or me, evidently.
- A resume is an anachronism. Lists of job experiences on LinkedIn replace the carefully typeset prose on perfect paper presented professionally. Resume bots have blanks that must be filled in. Remember your username and password. We’ll get back to you. Oh yeah, and word-of-mouth still works best. (Some things don’t change.)
- Investing is so driven by financial institutions and large cap stocks that individual investors like me have withdrawn to what were considered penny stocks. And in many cases, I understand why people are investing peer-to-peer despite the risks.
- Even currency is coming into question. The last time it was questioned was when we gave up the Gold Standard, but now alternative currencies are arising because the dollar and Euro are no longer considered as standard as they were as recently as 2007. Even paper and coins are being replaced by cryptography.
Put all those effects together and personal finance plans require new analyses and options.
A sign of youth is the willingness to challenge authority and assumptions. It was heartening to hear the contrast between what those men said and what I know. Whether they were right or wrong, their conversation seemed more of a desire to reinforce an image that existed when they were younger and “righter”. I may do the same thing eventually, if I haven’t already started.
So, celebrate any dissonance you have with conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is being redefined by those that challenge authority and assumptions, and if that’s you too, then celebrate your symptoms of youth. And don’t be surprised if that retirement calculator asks questions that are laughably inappropriate.
Thanks very much for another insightful and thought provoking blog.
I like the concept that conventional wisdom has become an oxymoron as technological change is now proceeding at such a breakneck pace that what might have been true last year is no longer true today. What is true today will be obsolete by next year. Today’s assumptions and precepts will be tomorrow’s “back in the day” jokes.
We must all continually rethink what is our reality as “planning for the future” transforms into navigating today and wondering about tomorrow. Anyone who seems to think they have “all the answers” probably has smoked too much of something that is still illegal to possess in many states.
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