My parents have no idea why I’m up here in the mountains.
They don’t understand why, after finishing a master’s degree, I decided to quit my nice job in the city and move to rural Vermont to live and work at a meditation retreat center for almost no money.
When my parents were my age, they already owned a home and were raising three kids. Both of them were securely locked into their careers, which they would stay in for the next 30 years. Their financial plan was all mapped out: Pay off the mortgage, save for the kids’ college tuition, and retire around 65.
So, of course it’s hard for them to understand that even as my 30th birthday approaches, I’ve chosen to live in a dorm at a place that feels very much like meditation summer camp for adults.
I’ve had seven different jobs in six different industries since I graduated from college, all of which I quit to pursue the next one (except in one case, when I quit to move to Australia). Each job was good – even great, occasionally – but I never wanted to stick with any of them for the next 30 years – at least not yet.
My parents, and many others, would say that I’m rebelling against the traditional life trajectory.
While my path is certainly different from that of my parents and grandparents, it’s not surprising.
Not only does my generation differ from the one that precedes it, but we’re also unlike several past generations when they were our age.
The Difference Between You and Me
“The Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path to adulthood,” reported the Pew Research Center in 2014. “Now ranging in age from 18 to 33, they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry – and optimistic about the future.”
The two biggest factors that seem to differentiate this generation’s economic adulthood are the state of education and the slow recovery from the recession.
We’re the first modern generation to be more educated than past generations, while living with more poverty and unemployment, less personal wealth, and more debt.
Forty-eight percent of millennials have at least a bachelor’s degree. When most of our parents – the Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 – were between 18 and 33, only 31% had completed a bachelor’s degree.
Millennials aged between 26 and 33 are currently the most educated group in America, with a full third having completed four years of college. Younger millennials may be slowing down their progress in higher education because they’re more aware of the immense debt weighing down their slightly older peers.
Unfortunately, the debt trap that is higher education is one we must fall into if we want to have any hope of eventually building up some wealth. Education is highly correlated with economic success, more for our generation than any other.
“On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction, to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education,” reported Pew this time last year.
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The disparity in earnings between those with a college degree and those with a high school degree has never been as great, either.
In 1979, high school graduates made about 77% of what a college graduate made. Today, it’s only 62%.
And the recession certainly has a lot to do with this disparity.
I graduated from college and entered the workforce in 2008, which was a tough time for anyone looking for a job. The recovery from the Great Recession has been exceedingly slow compared to other economic droops, and my peers and I have struggled through that.
“On some key measures, such as the percentage who are unemployed or the share living in poverty, this generation of college-educated adults is faring worse than Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, or members of the Silent generation when they were in their mid-20s and early 30s,” reported Pew.
Income and wealth gaps have risen while the median household income in the United States is still below its 1999 peak.
When you take all of this into account, it’s no wonder why so many Millennials are exploring different paths.
Still, my generation is hopeful for the future. Eight in 10 Millennials say they have enough money to lead the lives they want, or expect to in the years to come.
I share that optimism – sometimes.
Admittedly, as my 30th birthday approaches, I’ve been having bouts of anxiety over my decision to come here. Despite jumping from job to job, I was previously living a life fairly similar to my parents when they were younger. I always figured I would eventually settle into one job and start seriously working my way up the pay scale.
But now I’m here, dipping my toe into the freelance lifestyle, working with multiple small income streams, and definitely not contributing to my 401(k).
On most days, I enjoy being here and see the immense value in it. Meditation has revealed an understanding about myself, humanity, and life on this planet that makes my own existence exceedingly more beautiful and joyful.
Yet the more mundane – though not any less important – concerns over my long-term savings and the opportunities I may have given up in coming here still demand attention.
My parents’ path has served them well, and I’m sure I could also find happiness and contentment by following their example. Yet, there are a million ways to live your life. And it’s important to allow for the flexibility and freedom to see other possibilities.
The only thing certain in this life is death and taxes. Who knows what may arise for my generation and me, in-between those things?
Note: All statistics and data are from studies completed and published by the Pew Research Center.