When I was a kid, my dad would take me to the neighborhood store and pay 15 cents for a tiny, 6.5 oz. Coke. A "Co-Cola," he called it.
He'd take a long, deliberate drink, and I'd watch his Adam's apple bob up and down. Then, he'd hand me the bottle, with about an inch of brown liquid at the bottom, and I'd swig down the remainder in one throat-searing gulp.
My father was a child of the Great Depression, and he practiced (and taught) a kind of grinding austerity that comes from going hungry when you're a kid.
How many times have you heard our recent national travails described as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Yet I wonder if today's kids are internalizing the lessons of thrift that some of our parents and grandparents learned in the 1930s?
Some undoubtedly are. Our church, for example, is gathering take-home snacks for a rural school in a neighboring county where 80 percent of the kids -- yes, four out of five -- get free or reduced-price lunches, a sign of economic hardship at home.
But for a lot of middle-class children and young adults, the lessons of the Great Recession are more subtle, unless they are 20-somethings looking for work. In an article called "Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?" in last week's New York Times magazine, author Annie Lowrey points out that the Millennial Generation -- loosely, those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s -- have developed a pessimistic view about money that she calls "financial melancholy."
Among young adults ages 20 to 24, the middle Millennials, the unemployment rate is 17 percent, more than double the overall jobless rate. As a result, many young adults have come to believe they will never match, much less exceed, the affluence of their parents, Lowrey notes.
Indeed, research shows that generations that limp out of the career gate during deep recessions, like the the Millennials, never fully recover economically, according to the Times report.
I was thinking about this the other day while observing our two boys, ages 6 and 11, who are riding in the caboose of the Millennial Generation. Last Saturday, my younger son was moping around the house because he couldn't decide whether he wanted to go bowling or visit the Tennessee Aquarium. As a spring-break treat, his mother and I had offered him the option of two fun things to do.
After about an hour of this, I turned to his mother.
"This is ridiculous," I said. "The definition of a spoiled child is one who gets twisted up like this when somebody is trying to do something nice for them."
Later, I realized that my son was in a funk because of indecision, not ungratefulness, an important distinction with a 6-year-old.
Still, later that day he curled up on the couch with me and we watched an HBO documentary called "American Winter," which focuses on formerly middle-class people in Oregon who have been thrust into poverty due to long-term unemployment. Strangely, he sat through the whole film, quizzing me closely on what was happening to each family and why.
Meanwhile, my older son was off with his mom playing paintball, a rare treat that he can only achieve through weeks and weeks of delayed gratification. After playing (and winning) a one-on-one game with a young-adult player, the other man asked my son if he plays paintball often.
"Only once every couple of months," he answered, honestly. "I have to save up my allowance."
Good for him.
Middle-class kids who never hear their parents say "we can't afford that" are done a great disservice. I never duck a question from the boys about what we earn as a family or what we spend.
I talk to them about the contents of their college funds and how far they will stretch. My older son is beginning to understand mortgages, interest rates and compound earnings on investments. We talk about what household goods cost and how many hours mommy and daddy have to work to buy a dishwasher or paint the house.
My wife and I grew up without much money, but hard times early in life can be a blessing. We don't live in mortal fear of lifestyle regression like some people who grew up in more affluent homes. I could live on cornbread and pinto beans indefinitely.
Today's hardship breeds tomorrow's resilience. In fact, toughness may ultimately be the silver lining in this decade of despair we call the Great Recession. And these Millennials, because of their early exposure to hard times, may turn out to be perfectly suited for the trench warfare required to thrive in a global workforce.
Now that I've thought it through, I wouldn't be surprised if they not only catch us baby boomers and Gen. Xers, but ultimately kick our butts.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...