“If you work hard…” and other lies we we’ve been told
I know how we got here. It’s kind of obvious, if you think about it. The evidence is in my family history, when my aunt went to college — at the age of 42— to get her degree, so that her family could “get ahead” with a second income.
Little did she know (though she’s pretty vocal about it now) that when she graduated in 1995, she was already late, and her family had fallen behind. The idea of getting ahead at that point was laughable.
Hard work will get you anywhere
The only time I ever saw my dad cry was when his savings from missing Thanksgiving and Christmas — to work overtime and build up savings — vanished in a single roof-battering hail storm that insurance wouldn’t cover. (A problem that still exists today)
If the bullshit that hard work will get you anywhere is true, then I — and all of my friends — working a 60-hour week should be bonkers rich. Instead we’re still paycheck to paycheck, just like everyone else.
Going back to my aunt, this BS that she was fed about adding a second income wasn’t going to get her ahead; instead it kept her, my uncle, and my cousins, in line with an eroding norm.
Instead of quality of life improving, the second income added stress to their lives, while the additional income was only able to keep up with fun things like increasingly expensive cars, increasingly expensive medical bills, increasingly expensive groceries, and minimum investments for education (who here remembers when elementary school papers suddenly had to be typed, and hand-written reports would be an automatic F?).
Since they rented (raise your hand if you remember 14% mortgage rates!), they got to watch the number on their lease climb year-after-year, as more families with two incomes were willing to pay higher monthly rent.
Hard work is now the norm.
Nothing is more valuable than an education
Lies. I was fed this bullshit when I signed on the dotted line for my student loans. A naive 18-year-old asking a stupid question like “how am I going to pay back $120k when I graduate?”
Money to pay student loans is tangibly and indisputably more valuable than my education.
One of them is supposed to open doors for me — spoiler alert, it didn’t. Double-majored (see the theme here about working hard?) in business management and journalism. Both got a lot of doors slammed in my face.
The other, if I don’t stay on top of it, will perma-fuck my credit score, upon which most of my future mobility is based:
- Buying a car
- Renting an apartment
- Buying a house (if prices ever return to earth)
- Even getting a job, the thing the education was supposed to do on its own
Max out your 401k
Back to my aunt and uncle. They did this. They put every spare cent they had into the retirement account that was supposed to carry them through the end of their days.
Until recently, so did I.
That stopped when my aunt sat me down for a frank — and honestly, painful — conversation.
My aunt is still working, at age 71. Between her and my uncle, Social Security and her 401k won’t cover their monthly living expenses.
Rents, gas, and groceries have only gone up, while their target-retirement 401k investment plans automatically migrated most of their money into safe-bet bonds years ago. They missed out on the booming stock market that you hear about every day. My parents are actively trying to figure out how to devote some of their savings to help my aunt and uncle retire.
“Don’t believe the bullshit”
That’s what my aunt left me with. The so-called “conventional wisdom,” the “play-it-safe” bets. This world wasn’t meant for those who do what they’re supposed to. We get burned.
I would know, I’m a single mom (I’m sure that’s my fault somehow) barely scraping by. I work 60 hours a week, which I’m sure translates to not paying enough attention to my son. I’m drowning in the debt that the teenage version of me called bullshit on, and was told it would be fine.
Guess what. It’s not fine.
The problem with conventional wisdom is that it assumes that it’s applicable and true for everyone, even when the foundations upon which it was built are constantly shifting. Maybe a lot of that is on us — that we would prefer there to be some simple approach that we can latch onto, instead of diving in and understanding the details. The challenge, as anyone can expect, is that doing so takes time, which takes away from all of the other obligations we have in life. Where, in being a single mom, and working 60 hours a week, am I supposed to find the hours to navigate the complexities of late-stage capitalism?
I don’t have the answers. But I do know this:
There are no safe bets. Hard work won’t get you anywhere. Your education is probably worthless outside of however good it makes you feel. And your 401k will not be enough.