A parent’s eternal lament: What will become of our kids?

#461 in a series of true experiences in real estate
May 2004, Hills Newspapers

I swear my nineteen-year-old daughter Annie never finishes a glass of milk, or juice, even soda. She pours herself a glass full to the brim, drinks some, discards the rest. Sometimes I’m there before she’s poured. “Please take only as much as you’ll drink,” I say.

Whenever there are roll cookies in the refrigerator, my son Nick shows up to bake some. He eats all that he is hungry for, and then — I’ve caught him at this — throws what’s left away. “Don’t waste food,” I chide. “I hate it when you waste food.”

Clearly, my kids have never gone without. They like having food readily available but that’s about as far as their thoughts go. It makes me crazy. And it makes me wonder why I feel so strongly about this, not just food, but about wasting most anything.

Maybe the difference between their attitude and mine is that I was raised by the previous generations, the ones who went through the Depression, who worked hard and never made much money. My parents, and their parents, were people who budgeted tightly and took care of what they were able to obtain.

My kids, and most other kids I know, live differently. Except for those occasions when they’re completely broke and need the price of a BART ticket, they use only paper money. It’s as if coins are not real. I’m always finding quarters, dimes, nickels, and especially pennies, around the house.

Even when it’s their own money, earned by going to work, there is no such thing as saving up for something. They spend what they have, typically at lightning speed. Some money goes to their bare minimums — cell phones and gasoline — then more is spent for burritos, Jamba Juice and coffee mochas.

I do worry that my children will never be able to support themselves, especially where we live. The costs of living here – housing, food, clothes and insurance – are astronomical. As long as Annie and Nick are earning minimum wages, or slightly more, I can’t see how they’ll manage without my help.

Which is probably why I was so fascinated to read recently that the cost of most goods has gone way down over the years. That is, work-time prices, how long a person has to work in order to buy quite a number of items, including food, appliances, and cars, are considerably less than ever before.

In 1920, for example, it took the average guy 5-1/2 minutes of work to buy a small bottle of Coca-Cola. In 1970, the work-time price had gone down to 3.5 minutes, and a few years ago, in 1997, that bottle of coke cost 1-1/2 minutes of work.

Sounds good but it doesn’t translate the same way for kids like mine who frequent Starbucks and such. The prices they pay for liquids frequently consumed (an integral part, it seems, of socializing with friends) is high.

My daughter Annie works part time at Abercrombie & Fitch while she attends college. She earns $8.50 an hour. Several or more times each week, she and friends buy coffee in a cup at $4 a pop. In other words, she must work about 30 minutes to earn one drink.

To fill up her car with gas she needs about $20, for which she must work almost 2-1/2 hours. And just getting to and from her job in San Francisco on BART costs $5.80, about what she earns in 45 minutes.

Hopefully, when she’s out of college, Annie will be making a higher wage. Certainly she will be working more hours, but she’ll also want to move away from home, as my son Nick has.

Nick shares a house rental with 3 friends. He pays a little extra for his own room, and by the time he kicks in money for utilities, it costs around $500 a month for his housing. Plus he needs gas money, cell phone, and food. And for both kids, there are the expenses of clothes, entertainment, an occasional parking ticket, haircuts.

Nick took his own TV when he moved, as Annie will, too. Having their own televisions, also VCR’s and most recently, DVD’s, was made possible by lowest-prices-ever of such electronics. In the report I just read, the following prices were quoted for TV’s.

In 1954 a color TV cost $1000, requiring 562 hours of an average worker’s job time. By 1971, a color TV cost $620, equaling 174 hours of work. In 1997, the cost had dropped to $299, plus wages were higher, so it took only 23 work hours to own a TV.

It’s little wonder that my parents felt as they did about money and full use of everything from food to furniture. They had to work longer to get what they purchased. Things were used longer too, for example, small appliances. If something went wrong with your toaster oven or clothes iron, you took them to a repair shop.

You wanted them fixed, you’d paid a fairly hefty price for them. But nowadays it’s hard to find someone willing to make repairs simply because it’s cheaper to buy replacements.

So very much has changed. In my era, most mothers were at home, not working at outside jobs. My own mother budgeted fiercely, used a pressure cooker for the least expensive cuts of meat, made most of our clothes, and gave my sister and me Toni home permanents.

We were careful to turn out lights, we cleaned our plates, drank Kool-Aid rather than soda, and did not question that we never traveled to Hawaii or Mexico on vacation. In fact, I don’t remember ever thinking about such a thing.

As you can tell, I’ve been giving all of this some thought. I don’t know where my kids will end up, when I might stop supporting them, why they don’t think like I do.

Heaven knows I’ve been telling them since babyhood, just as my mother told me, about the starving children outside of our own good fortune.

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