Are We Worse Off Than Our Parents?

I have seen the sentiment that people nowadays are worse off than previous generations. I don’t agree, I think people in the United States are currently enjoying a better standard of living than previous generations.

My mother was born in a rural farmhouse with no running water. They got their water from a cistern until she was in her teens. Going to a restaurant was a once or twice a year treat. She actually did have to walk two miles in the snow to school, although it was only uphill one way. They didn’t have a television until she was well into her teens. She didn’t think it was that bad when she was growing up because that was all she knew. She enjoyed her childhood but she doesn’t have any nostalgia about that time. She is quite happy with her current standard of living.

Things have changed quite a bit even since my childhood. Cable TV wasn’t available in our town until I was a teenager. The full cable lineup was 13 channels and it didn’t include MTV. Our TV didn’t have a remote, which wasn’t uncommon at that time. Us kids served as the remote. I was into computers as a kid and had an Atari 400 computer which had a fraction of the computing power that a cell phone has now. There was no internet. Long distance calls were expensive. Our house didn’t have central air conditioning and neither did any of the other houses on our street even though they were all relatively new. We didn’t have a microwave. Going out to eat was a special occasion. I looked forward to when we would travel to a large city since we might get to eat at a McDonald’s.

Let’s compare then to now. Our current basic cable TV lineup has about 60 channels. You can’t buy a TV without a remote. A personal computer is incredibly more powerful now and the cost is about the same. Most people have cell phones now and long distance calls are just another phone call. The internet is commonplace now with the average American spending 13 hours a week online. If you didn’t grow up without internet you may not realize just how great a resource it is. Having central air conditioning in a new house is the norm now. Back in the mid 70s only 36% of the entire U.S. population had air conditioning at all. The large majority of households have microwaves now. Going out to eat isn’t a special treat anymore. Overall, 7 percent of the U.S. population visits McDonald’s each day, and 20 to 25 percent eat in some kind of fast-food restaurant. Some studies suggest that, on average, Americans actually eat one out of every four meals and snacks outside of the home.

You could argue that some of these advances are actually detrimental to quality of life but I think it is clear that we enjoy a much higher standard of living now than ever before. There are some areas where the current generation isn’t as well off such as the high cost of higher education. On the other hand college attendance rates are a lot higher than they used to be. Overall, I think kids today are better off than their parents.

The current generation may eventually see their quality of living decrease due to peak oil, a debt default, or some other major happening but for now they have it pretty good.

24 thoughts on “Are We Worse Off Than Our Parents?”

  1. I tend to agree with you, we are in a more lucrative place. However, I can’t say that it is better. Better is a relative thing. Perhaps folks don’t feel like they are in a better place because they are residing with the parents too long and expecting the same luxurys when they venture out.

  2. Andy, I respectfully disagree! My husband and I have been married for 40 years (married young) , have college educations and four children in their 30’s. When you write, Andy, you are only addressing consumer goods and services that we now have that have improved our standard of living and contributed to our entertainment and enjoyment of life (indoor plumbing, cable, cell, restaurants etc). But every generation sees that kind of improvement as time marches on. But I do not think that today’s generation is better off! I say this because the costs of healthcare, education, energy and housing have galloped way ahead of inflation. As we raised our family, we saw the costs of everything rise. My husband and I could go to the university in our youth and pay cash on our own with no debt or help from parents. My first semester at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (1970) cost me $270 in cash for 12 credits plus $40 for books. My own father paid $50/semester at the same university. He says he would just work a job in the summers and be able to save for the whole year of school. Now, look what it is! The basic costs for tuition are $20,000, only a generation away from us. Income is not on par with those costs. My own kids have children, and I see firsthand how much more these basic costs consume a family’s income. And my parents used to say the same thing to me when we were raising our children!

    Yes, you did address education. But tell me, how are today’s kids better off with all the student debt they have? We were able to help our children, so they have no debt, but we saw tuition edge up and up during those college years.

  3. While we may have more gadgets and conveniences, I think our fundamental systems are worse off. We are no longer a leader in education, which I think will hurt us in the long run. Plus we are the generation(s) who get to see if our 40 year experiment in fiat currency will work. If it doesn’t, well, I don’t even want to speculate…

  4. I think it’s a more complex question than might meet the eye. Much of it depends on each person’s own family history and life experience. Two people might have similar income and net worth that are considered average, but one came from poverty and the other from wealthy parents. The former might think things are better, the latter might see it the other way.

    On a broader level, I’d say that technological, health care, and perhaps environmental changes have helped pave the way for many people to live better lives than their parents. However, here in the U.S. I think that it’s harder for people to live middle class lives than it might have been a generations ago. We were a truly dominant economy with most of the world’s stock wealth. Now, we’re still the leader but not as dominant, and it shows. It would great to see this trend reverse.

  5. I think that health will become a crisis since overweight and obesity have increased dramatically amongst all age groups, particularly and ominously amongst youth, and seemingly in a J-shaped curve since the 1970s.

  6. As I stated education is an area where the current generation is not better off. When I first went to college my tuition was only $500 which wasn’t even enough to cover one class when I went to law school. Perhaps when the student loan bubble bursts education will become more affordable.

  7. The fundamental systems may be worse off but we haven’t really felt the consequences. The younger generation may be worse off eventually but I don’t think they are worse off yet.

  8. There isn’t really a way to definitively answer this question and I’m sure lots of people will disagree with me. Based on my experiences and observations I think people are better off.

  9. Life is much easier now, that’s for sure. We are definitely a lot more secure financially than my parents. My parents were immigrants so life was pretty tough for a while. The internet is nice, but I spend way too much time online and need to cut down a bit.

  10. You must be about the same age as me — I was my dad’s remote too…

    I tell you, I sure do like having the internet at my fingertips, so that’s one change I wouldn’t want to do without, but most of the rest of the improvements aren’t really things I’m all that interested in.

    Like others have said, I think whether or not we’re worse off than our parents depends on how you look at it and what factors you’re considering.

  11. Ha! We probably are about the same age. The internet is my favorite improvement. I’d give up the other improvements before I’d give up internet but I do enjoy the other improvements as well.

  12. Medicine, education, and gold prices aside, you know I agree with you. (And the first one, especially? It may have been cheaper, but I’ll trade it for today).

    You know I’m on the ‘things are better off’ bandwagon, even though they may not appear to be at first glance. Lots of the things we take for granted – microwaves, (personal) computer, cell phones, etc… didn’t even exist a generation or two ago (and if it did, it was prohibitively expensive).

    I suppose that someone can argue with any of those things and try to make the case that they don’t matter or they haven’t actually improved lives (it’s tenuous, but okay…). Then you only have to point at life expectancy – which has definitely gone up.

  13. What Squirrelers said…
    Depends on personal circumstances, family and regional differences… I could make the case either way, but I’ll settle for quoting Will Rogers: “Things ain’t what they used to be and probably never was”

  14. I think that things are definitely better off now but that we often take them for granted. The internet, for example, is such that most everyone (here in the US) uses it. I, personally, wouldn’t know what to do without it. I can read a mapsco still but it doesn’t give me GPS turn-by-turn directions.
    Obviously there are things that aren’t better or the improvements aren’t worth the cost associated, but every generation goes through this.
    I will note that 444 makes a good point about obesity. As a matter of fact, I think that is the #1 health concern right now. The internet and 986758678 tv channels we all have don’t help that problem one bit, either.

  15. As far as job security and stressors on the body, we certainly are not better than our parents….. though it depends on who we are talking about. The situation becomes much more complex when we consider sub populations such as race and gender. Some segments of the population are not doing as good as others when compared to other segments of the population. (some scientists say that the “life opportunities” are far less available today than they were for our parents.

    I’ll try and get to these topics as soon as I can (probably in a march blog post series). This was an excellent post with wonderful comments. Thank you.

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