Wikinvest Wire

Same generation, different continent

Sunday, April 27, 2008

It's hard not to notice the striking differences between the thirtysomethings described in these two stories - the same generation living on very different continents.

First, Jason Liebrecht of Southern California in this LA Times report:

Raised in boom times, many Gen-X and Yers see
their dreams go bust

Jason Liebrecht used to write about his motorcycle adventures on his blog. But since early this month, the 36-year-old San Diego computer software engineer's daily musings have been about a less thrilling new experience: unemployment.

"Do I find a job, or do I head to Central and South America on the motorcycle?" he wrote on Day 4. By Day 7, he had become more realistic: "So far in the last week I've made $1,245 off of EBay sales. Mostly stuff I wasn't using, or don't need much. Nice way to clean the house up!"

After selling some stock and applying for unemployment, Liebrecht figures he can pay his $2,300-a-month mortgage and other bills for just two months. When his company health insurance runs out in a few weeks, he'll go uncovered because he can't afford the premiums.

"You have to just hope you land on your feet," Liebrecht said in an interview.

People everywhere are coping with rising credit card balances, falling home values and layoffs. But such worries are particularly jarring for a younger slice of the workforce that has known little but long-term financial prosperity and optimism.

After all, a large share of today's 20- and 30-somethings -- a nearly 80-million strong cohort -- were in college or high school (and some in grade school) the last time the country experienced a severe financial jolt. Some can barely remember the mild recession of 2001, which was followed by an extraordinary boom that coincided with their entry into the workforce.

Raised amid a long stretch of financial bounty and weaned on video games, cellphones, iPods and weekends at the mall, many Generation X and Y members have barely seen a time when they couldn't spend freely on the latest styles and gadgets.
It's important to note that much of the free spending in recent years has been with borrowed money - either credit cards or home equity.

Around the other side of the world in China, the New York Times reports on Feng Jun who is just three years older than Jason Lebrecht:
Horatio Alger Multiplied by 1.3 Billion

“My generation is very lucky,” said Feng Jun.

Mr. Feng, the chief executive of Aigo, a large Chinese consumer electronics company, is a classic Chinese entrepreneur: starting with $31 in his pocket, he has built a business whose products are a staple of urban China, including digital cameras, MP3 players and a new iPhone-like all-in-one device. Before telling me his Horatio Alger story, though, he had something he wanted me to understand.

“My mother and father went through the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Feng said. “They had no chance.”

He continued: “When I was in grammar school, the Cultural Revolution ended. When I graduated from university in 1992, that was the year of real reform. Deng Xiaoping encouraged students to go into business and become entrepreneurs. Before then, if you wanted to be an entrepreneur, you would sink like a stone. But after that, anyone could be an entrepreneur.”
First, it helps explain why most of the Chinese chief executives I met — every one a company founder — were in their 30s. Though Mr. Feng began his company 16 years ago, he is just 39, and absolutely brimming with entrepreneurial enthusiasm.
While these two are certainly not representative of their generation in terms of career success - there are many successful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and at least a few unemployed software engineers in China - they probably are representative of their generation in the way they view the world.

It's funny that the guy who started with nothing but opportunity feels lucky today, while twenty and thirtysomethings in the U.S., many of whom have seen nothing but good times and seemingly endless prosperity, now feel quite unlucky.


This week's cartoon from The Economist:

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Anonymous said...

Strange as a 33 year old software engineer, I feel lucky and not at the same time. I worked hard to achieve a middle class existence, I live below my means and yet I don't have the kind of hope that your Chinese entrepreneur does.

I feel like I am slipping behind and that my future is being stolen by a reckless govt unwilling to face the music. I feel like as a saver I've been nothing but punished and I still can't AFFORD a home. Most of all I feel the pinch of a system that while it does present more evenly distributed opportunities than China offers less and less stability.

As a side note the recession of 01-03 WAS NOT MILD if you were in the IT industry as I was. To say so is a gross mis-qualification of what happened.

Dan said...

I am also a 34 y/o software developer. Before I was a software developer, I was a broker. I happened to be a broker during the bust of '01 (since we're IT folks, shouldn't we refer to this as "Bust 1.0" and "Bust 2.0"?) When things went caddywompus, I just shifted gears. Before I was a broker, I was singing, dancing and acting on Broadway (big back injury ended that stuff). I've always been very good at just going where the day takes me. I've been entrepreneurial too. I've started three companies and am working on starting my fourth. I never had anything handed to me. I was the last child of WW2 generation parents who passed on when I was younger. I have felt like it was always a bit difficult to "keep up" with the Jones', but I continuously reflected on my parents' sage advice to not use credit and I never have. I have no debt. I have good investments. But I am worried. The cost of living has risen fiercely in the last several years and as someone who does not use credit, I can tell you that it has a rather large impact. My savings rate has shrunk by 50%. I used to be able to save 20% / year. I can't so much anymore. I've decided to rent out a room in my apartment just to try and boost that rate a little bit, but at the rate we're going, I'm not really sure how long that'll last. But this part is telling. In the process of interviewing potential renters I've witnessed how many people just do not have money. I mean barely anyone. So many people are broke and just cannot come up with the dough. It is difficult finding candidates for what I'm asking, which is under market. Its getting a bit scary. I can't speak for all 30 something's out there. Many of my friends whose parents were of the baby boomer generation did have everything handed to them. Many of them started life on third base and thought they'd hit a triple. Ah, maybe I'm just jaded ; )


Anonymous said...

I'm under thirty with three kids working at a non-profit. I bought my first house at 22 and had my first kid when I was 23. At times I've worked more than one job at a time, but my wife has always been able to stay home. We drive used cars and don't eat out much at all. I've got zero sympathy for the motorcycle kid. Seems like a selfish life to me. Get married, have some kids, be responsible, and work hard.

Clarence said...

You gentlemen are the exception and not the rule. There is still hope for your generation, but sometimes I wonder. As a sprightly 55 year-old who has done better than most in life, it sometimes make me sick to think about the "mess" my generation is leaving behind.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous @ 10:34 am: your financial situation might be better if your kids worked at a for-profit business - the pay at non-profits is generally worse. (Or, you might be missing some punctuation.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 3:33 PM,

You clearly have never stuffed envelopes. With their nimble, little fingers, kids are quite good at it.

Anonymous @ 10:34 AM

Bruno said...

Sounds to me like "anonymous" wants everyone to be as miserable and saddled with responsibility as he is.

Some people live happy lives w/o having kids. Deal with it. The world doesn't NEED more people. It's not like remaining single/childless is harming anyone.

Lou Minatti said...

Please stop referring to them as software "engineers". Code monkeys are NOT engineers. The guy who runs the server is NOT an engineer. To call these people engineers is an insult to REAL engineers who busted their balls getting engineering degrees.

I blame it on Microsoft, which "certified" PC guys on their software and invented the "Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer".

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