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The Worth of Wealth

What is wealth?  The Urban Institute recently reported that the average net worth of today’s 29 to 37 year old has fallen 21% in comparison with previous generations since 1983.  On the surface, this idea of “less wealth” may seem like a bad thing, as generally, I don’t like to be “less” at anything.  However, a little more examination of “wealth” may be warranted to look below the surface, before making any conclusions.

When I had “less net wealth” (i.e. spending money for personal expenses) during college, decision making seemed a bit more thoughtful.  I considered the dollar in my pocket from the standpoint of a load of laundry (ok, I went to college in the early 90’s), a quick meal (i.e. a whole wheat bagel and pesto cream cheese from the student co-op) or saved for another day.  You get the point.  I couldn’t be as spendthrift, if for nothing else, than I didn’t want to hear the lecture from my mom about spending so much money at the same time they were forking out thousands of dollars for my yearly increasing tuition.  In a sense, “less wealth” created the opportunity for me to be more conscious, and think through what I valued most (at least for the short term), knowing I had limited means to serve my needs (which can be limitless.)  What’s “less” about more deliberate action and thinking through the consequences BEFORE acting?

Now, given: there is a peace of mind in not living paycheck to paycheck, worried about making ends meet.  Yet, there can also be a “hunger” to put forth effort, when knowing that the next meal will be based on self-propelled efforts.  As a self-employed consultant, I’m constantly reminded that building a business is dependent on my consistent effort and improvement.  Clients will refer us, if we’ve delivered both quality and credible information, consistently.  As Creative Marbles matures, my efforts are challenged by un-learning the mindset from working for other organizations, especially as a public high school classroom teacher, where 160 kids showed up regardless of whether my lessons for the day were quality or not.  My salary was not dependent on the “client” or student’s attendance the next day nor the student’s satisfaction with my lessons–not so as a private consultant. But, as I write this post, I’m not ready to conclude that the “wealth” I accumulated from earning a guaranteed salary versus the relatively fluctuating income I have as self-employed business owner is more or less worthwhile.

As in all issues, there’s multiple contours to an experience.  Less is only less in comparison with something similar that appears to be more.  So, on paper, current generations of 20 and 30-somethings may seem less financially wealthy than previous generations, but, what’s the satisfaction point?  Who’s to say the current generation of young adults won’t be more satisfied with less or that previous generations are more fulfilled with more?

Credit: NY Times Magazine 3/26/2013