One of my sons reminds me frequently that things have changed. It is not the same world I grew up in, not the same world I attended college in, not the same world I built a career in. His generation faces different challenges. He suggests that many of the principles I offer are no longer relevant.
To some extent he is right of course, but in some ways, I think not.
My son got a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts with the expectation that it would qualify him for a job that paid better than minimum wage. He was quickly disappointed. He moved to a larger urban area but was still earning minimum wage. He had friends in his age group that faced a similar problem. He had been told to work hard, do well in school and you will be rewarded. He now believed that had all been a lie, or least an outdated idea. He told me that the work hard and you’ll succeed idea may have been valid when I was a young man but is no longer true.
It is painful for a father to watch his son do all the right things and then struggle with disappointing results. We all want out children to succeed. Those struggles of my son and many in his generation who came of age during a severe recession have caused me to re-evaluate my assumptions about success and the things I write about on this blog.
For some perspective I also must remember my own struggles as a young man. I graduated with a B.S. degree in liberal arts as well but back in 1976. Jimmy Carter was President and the nation was in a recession. We faced “stagflation”, a crippling combination of high inflation and a stagnate economy with high unemployment. We had recently suffered through the OPEC oil embargo, long lines at the gas station, and high fuel prices. In the summer of 1976 I found how little that four-year degree did to improve my employment prospects. I worked in a soft drink bottling plant 12 hours a day at minimum wage. Then I was a janitor. Then I worked as a dishwasher and cook.
But I had a plan. My plan all along was to use that four-year degree to get into law school and become a professional. After working for 15 months to save money to attend law school I did just that – I went to law school. After law school, I built my own law practice from the ground up. It was a struggle. It was several years before I was earning a decent income.
My son was not impressed. Things were different now. His struggle was harder. His generation got a raw deal.
There is some truth in my son’s view. It is hard for many of today’s young people. Not since the great Depression have so many of them continued to live with parents. To be sure however many of that generation are doing well. My older son works in sales and did not even finish college. He is doing quite well.
So is my younger son right? Are the bromides of the past outdated and largely irrelevant in a changed world and a changed economy? I suggest that most of those traditional ideas about how to be successful are still valid but that many will still struggle financially despite doing the right things.
The choices we make about education, training, where we live and what career path we choose all play a large role in how well we will do. That has always been true. It was true when I was 25 and it is true now for my 25-year-old son. Choose a medically related career, engineering, sales and several other fields and success is much more likely. Young people must decide what they want to do and they must choose those careers that are in demand. A few people may carve out a niche in a field that is not in high demand and still do well, but for the majority it is critical to choose the right career. Likewise, choices about where we live, when we decide to marry and have a family also play a large role in our chances of success.
The willingness to work hard still provides rewards. While it is true that all hard work is not rewarded as a rule success in a globally competitive world requires hard work. Employers prefer hard workers. If someone wants to start a business of their own hard work is essential.
Integrity is just as important today as ever. Some would say it is in short supply today though I am not sure I agree. I do see that those who are honest and have high personal integrity are more effective working with others and are more successful.
It remains as important as ever to spend less than we earn, to save and invest wisely and to build for the future. Lifelong employment with a single company is now the exception rather than the rule. Corporate pension plans are no longer as secure as they once were. Government programs like Social Security never provide all that people need in retirement and their future is always subject to political whim.
Education and increasing one’s skill sets and knowledge are more important today than ever. As my son correctly points out his generation is learning that conventional higher education may not always be the best way to go although it still has merit. Lifelong learning however remains critical to maintaining one’s competitive edge no matter where you live or what you do.
My son is right that things have changed. Technological change is increasingly rapid. We now live in an increasingly competitive global market. Social change is also faster than ever before. Adapting to this change requires agility and effort more than in the past. But some things have not changed. Hard work, integrity, frugality and education remain important and in many ways are more important today than they were when I was a young man.
The challenge for us all is to maintain these age-old principles while adapting to a changed world. The principles that have always contributed to success however still apply and may be more important today than ever.Wishing you well,
Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.