Monday, July 11, 2011

The Tragedy of Middle Class Kids Gone Bad

Suburban white kids have a lot of advantages in life.  So why do they want to act like they came from the Ghetto?  Most of us fail to appreciate the advantages we have in life - until we lose them.  And many middle-class kids fall out of the middle-class because of poor choices they make.

In the book Freakonomics, which is a pile of horseshit, the authors put forth the premise that the socioeconomic class your are born in is the greatest indicia of your future success.

And yes, that is true in some regards, statistically speaking, rich kids end up doing better than poor kids.   But you are not a statistic, you are a human being who makes choices in life.   And despite your "advantage" by starting off middle-class or rich, you can fuck it all up royally, if you choose to do so.

And a surprising number of wealthy or middle-class kids do that, every year.  Why is this?

Again, the focus of this blog is on the impoverished middle-class - people who make good money, but due to poor choices end up squandering it all and ending up poor and broke.  And I've seen this too many times in my life and it makes no sense to me.  Well, it makes altogether too much sense - usually depression, drinking, and drugs are involved - particularly pot.

I grew up in fairly affluent places like Old Greenwich, Connecticut, Lake Forest, Illinois, and a small town called Cazenovia, New York.   Most of the kids I knew either came from "old money" or were the sons and daughters of successful executives, Doctors, or Lawyers.  These were kids who went to private schools, whose parents entertained at cocktail parties, and belonged to exclusive "restricted" clubs.  These kids lived in good neighborhoods, often in elaborate houses.  And many of them were handed the keys to a car - often new - on their 16th Birthday.   And all of them went to college - or had the opportunity to do so, paid entirely by their parents.

For many people in this country today, that would be viewed as a privileged upbringing.  But in the 1960's and 1970's, that was pretty much a description of middle-class and upper-middle-class America.  We didn't have servants or anything (perhaps a cleaning lady once or twice a week) but we were doing OK, particularly compared to today's standards - where kids today struggle to pay for a college education, particularly if their parents are middle-class.

So these sons and daughters of privilege and wealth went on to more privilege and greater wealth, right?  Well, not exactly.  A surprising number ended up living lower-middle-class lifestyles, if not in fact outright impoverished lifestyles.  And given the opportunities handed to them on a silver platter, this seems particularly obscene.

But then again, not unexpected.   When something is handed to you, with  no effort on your part, you do not appreciate it, do you?  Of course not.   Which is why government giveaways are a bad idea - people don't appreciate "free."  They just trash it.

Another aspect of this trend was the fabulous 1960's.  Free love, free drugs, and rock 'n roll were the order of the day, and many a middle-class kid came back from college radicalized by campus agitators.  One of my Brothers actually came back from college toting Chairman Mao's "little red book" - which had more horseshit in it than Freakonomics.  I guess today he shudders at his naivete, but then again, maybe not.  A lot of that commie bullshit "took" in his mind.

And that was the deal - college kids back then renounced their parent's lifestyle as "bourgeoisie" and decadent and said they were renouncing materialism, which is easy to do when you are living off your parent's money at college and smoking pot all day long.  After graduation, most kids grew up and grew out of that "phase" - but others thought that everyone was serious about it, and it was not a mere political styling.  And so they spend the next two decades living in abject poverty, skimming a bit from parents and relatives when they could, and doing not much.

Today, kids fall for that trap as well, embracing "Anarchy" without knowing how to spell it, and decrying "the big corporations" in their dorm rooms, paid for by the money from the big corporation their parents work for.  Most kids outgrow this - but some are dumb enough to take it seriously as a lifestyle choice.

And the same is true for the suburban white-boy "gansta" wanna-be - role playing like a rap star and not realizing it is a teenage fad, not a lifestyle choice.  While his friends graduate from college and go get jobs, the white-boy gangsta thinks he really is one, and ends up living in poverty as a crack addict.

Others just embraced the drugs and not the political philosophy.  Pot in particular makes a user think, "why bother trying?" and harder drugs make trying impossible by bankrupting the user.  So children of rich parents smoke dope in the basement and sit around and wait to inherit and basically squander all the opportunity handed to them.

And another aspect, I think, is intimidation.  If your Dad was poor and pulled himself up by his bootstraps and is now a Millionaire, you might think, as some snot-nosed kid, that such achievements are beyond you.  And I've seen many a Dad run down their kid as an "idiot" or "lazy" and thus create a self-fulfilling expectation for their children.  So the kids sit in the basement, smoke pot and think, "How can I ever be as successful as Dad?" and they don't think they can, so they don't and they don't try.

And some parents, as I noted in the Parent Trap posting, prefer it this way - they prefer to have dependent children who never amount to anything - ruined lives that they can lord over, and moreover, control.   It is a power gig.

To some extent, it can be harder for middle-class and wealthy kids to succeed.  A kid growing up in the ghetto is less likely to embrace communist bullshit and anti-materialism - their view is, making money is  a good thing - and being against that is only something an idiot would embrace (and they are right).  They would appreciate the opportunities offered middle-class kids a lot more.

Another aspect that dampens success is inheritances.  As I noted before, if your parents have enough money to last you the rest of your life, you may lower your expectations.   And from an economic standpoint, this might actually make "sense".   If you have a guaranteed income from an inheritance, why bother risking it by working and becoming successful?  Because once you are successful, it is more likely your parents will fork over the money to a "needier" sibling.

Whatever the reasons for it, many middle-class and wealthy kids end up in poverty or as chronic under-achievers.   I estimate that maybe 1/10 to 1/4 of the kids I knew in Prep School or from the Country Club ended up this way - living a lifestyle far below the level of their parents - some ending up in trailer park squalor.  Others literally ending up as homeless crack addicts.

How can you prevent this?  For yourself as well as your kids?  Well, for yourself, realize that the political posturings of college are fun and all, but are not lifetime commitments.  Rearranging your life to "be true to" a political movement is just stupid.  You are allowed to change your mind.   And when Anarchy gets sort of old (which it will, trust me) by the time you are 25, maybe it is time to just let it go - if it is not too late already.

Second, realize that smoking pot is a lot of fun, but long-term, it will sap the will to live from you, and you will end up living in the squalor of a bong-lair before long, probably in your parent's basement.  Take a good look around the homes of the people you do drugs with, and ask yourself, "How did I end up here?  Do I want to live like this?  And wasn't that dried up pizza slice on their coffee table last week when I came here?"

It is OK to take care of yourself - I give you permission.   Looking out for yourself is not being "selfish" but a social responsibility.   Because if you don't, the rest of us have to pick up the slack, and we already have to many unskilled underachievers on the dole already.

Realize that you can live your own life and have a little money in the bank, and maybe a few nice things, and that's OK to do - and possible to do.   You can be successful, but you have to chose to try to do it, first.  There are no guarantees, of course, but the person who doesn't try is guaranteed failure.

And in the USA, it is very easy to succeed (if you are not smoking pot) as people want to see you succeed.  No really, people like you and want to see you get ahead - if you show them you are trying.

If you are a parent, the key is to make sure you kid doesn't start smoking pot - and you know deep down when they start doing it.    It is not just "teenaged hormones" that are making your son reclusive and ornery - and getting crappy grades.  It is easier to look the other way, of course.

And it goes without saying that ridiculing and running down your kids is a sure way to have them end up in the basement.  And it sounds stupid, but I've seen parents do it!  I've seen firsthand, Dads tell their sons that they are "quitters" and "will never amount to anything".   And I've seen parents ridicule and run down the dreams of their kids, and try to force them into a field of study or career that was popular 30 years ago - but is largely a dead-end today.

Being supportive is important.  And most parents are.   But many are not.  When I decided to study Engineering, it was like declaring war on my Mother - who was convinced that the only education worth having was a Liberal Arts education.  Maybe that was fine in 1939, but today, it rarely leads to a job.  So she took every opportunity to run down my career choice and argue "what is the point of all these darn computers, anyway?"

Like I said, never take career advice from anyone over 30.    And she's dead now.   Thank God!

Of course, there will always be a percentage of privileged youth who screw the pooch - mostly due to mental illness, schizophrenia, which usually kicks in around age 18 or so.  My theory about this (having seen it manifest itself in friends and family) is that young men and women freak out at that age, as they cannot transition from the world of algebra exams and book reports and prom dates, to the world of college, career, and family.  They literally can't grow up, because growing up seems, well, too scary and not even possible.  So they freak out and lose it, which is a shame.  And mental illness usually sentences the victim to a lifetime of poverty, unless they come from a particularly wealthy home.

Perhaps none of this will ever change, either.  And maybe this is not too bad a thing - after all, as I noted earlier, this effect of middle-class kids going bad tends to turn over the wealth in this country on a regular basis - which I think is a good thing for the long haul.   Old money is largely gone from our society - or a much smaller segment of the wealthy these days.

If you are middle-class, don't be ashamed of it.  So you grew up in a tract home and went to a suburban high school.  Big deal - you were lucky.  Make the most of it.  Don't squander it.  Because 30 years later you'll wish you took better advantages of the opportunities thrown into your lap.

UPDATED May 2017 to correct typos, reformat, and insert hyperlinks.