Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Life By Default

Coming back to the U.S. for a while has been a nice break from struggling with a different language and culture. But after being away, it has also given me some perspective on the culture I grew up with.

In this economic downturn, a lot of people are struggling with houses they can no longer afford, keeping up with car payments, the cost of children, etc. You can blame it on bad decisions, causing people to live beyond their means (as conservatives do). Or you can blame it on the evil corporate empire taking advantage of people in a big marketing machine (as liberals do). But I think it's a much more complicated intertwining of both. For a long time, my generation (X) in the United States has had it very easy. Unless you were a complete moron, you could land a job doing SOMETHING and get by. The economic situation was so good, you could major in philosophy, backpack through Europe, start a career late and still land on your feet. This has made us lazy about making decisions, and so a lot of people live life by default.

What is life by default? It's doing what everyone else does or what the great public relations and advertising machine tells you to do without thinking about whether it really fits the context of your life. It's having a huge white wedding because you dreamt of it since a child even though it will start your marriage in debt. It's getting into a mortgage that costs 40% of your income every month because the bank said you could "afford" it. It's getting saddled with a new car payment because you are too embarrassed to drive a clunker to the office. For a long time these "non-decision decisions," or default decisions didn't really matter, because even though you made major economic mistakes, you could sell your house at a profit, change jobs for a 20% raise, or cash in some stock options to make up for it. Not any more. I think for the first time in a long time, my generation has to economically grow up. The fantasy is over, kids.

I've made my share of "default" mistakes. I have a student loan hanging over my head that some "counselor" in a financial aid office stamped me through with a ten-minute decision that has stayed with me for over ten years. But I've tried to make my decisions with increasing deliberation as I have gotten older. When I asked myself why I wanted to have children in my twenties, the answer "because I always thought I would" was not good enough. It had to fit what was going on in the immediate context of my life. I wanted a lot of things as a little girl--to be a princess or a ballerina--but that doesn't fit whom I have become. I have responsibilities to a spouse whose feelings I need to respect, I have health issues I never could have anticipated, I have increasing awareness of my capacity to handle new burdens, whether financial or otherwise. Any decision has to fit who I am now, not who I was or who I want others to see me as.

It's O.K. to take the bus. It's O.K. to live in a trailer, not own a TV, get a job wherever you can to make ends meet, reconsider your political views, cut your hair short, change religions, change careers, have children, decide NOT to have children, as long as it's deliberate. As long as it fits. As long as it is YOU.

The next time I find myself being manipulated into something that doesn't feel right, whether it's pressure from a sales person to buy something I can't afford, or pressure from people to "keep up with the Joneses," I'm going to tell whoever it is to fuck off. No more decisions by default. That's my new mantra. When anyone asks why I have made a decision, I have an answer. That way, if my life takes a tumble, at least I know I have been true to myself.


Emily said...

I really enjoyed this post. I feel very lucky that my parents paid for my education and raised me to have a healthy fear of not only debt but having too little in the bank. Sure, I spend plenty of money on unnecessary luxuries (everything from a coffee to expensive shoes), but I would never do so at the expense of my financial future or without knowing that I can make those purchases and still be able to deal with an unexpected expense. It's scary how many people can't say the same not because they aren't earning enough but because as you said, they've allowed themselves to spend so much!

Tina said...


Sallycat said...

Hear hear!

SC (Sally from Writing Group - just back in BsAs after 7 weeks in UK, which sure gave me mucho food for thought along the lines you write about here. Loved this post.)

Ryan said...

I've had the same fortune as Emily except for the shoes :).

But all I can say is "Damn Straight!" I'm frustrated by how I've seen my friends make the same bad decisions which totally fall into the 'default' catagory. It's a shame and I've realized that some people just aren't going to change.

Never say die because there are still some that are on the fence that you can blow over to the bright side. Keep it up! :D

Anonymous said...

what an excellent post. you hit it right on the head. i am part of the millenial generation, and i've come to these very same conclusions soon after college because i finally saw the sham that is the 'typical american life'.