The ’90s and now, part 14

But also, unlike in the ’90s, there are many more ways to make money in spite of supposed economic hardship, such as in the stock market and option trading [as the huge popularity of /r/wallstreetbets shows, where 20 and 30-year-olds frequently make (and also lose) huge sums of money], crypto currency, live-streaming on YouTube or Periscope, Uber, blogging, affiliate marketing, selling on Amazon, podcasts, etc. The internet, mobile, and ‘big data’ has created so many new ways to make money, that a generation ago didn’t exist. For example, many young people are earning more money than even their parents as so-called “social media influencers” by promoting brands on Instagram and other major social networking sites.

But it’s not just about making money, but the lifestyle of being able to set one’s hours and make money on one’s own terms rather than being beholden to a boss. The ‘summer job’ is dying, not just for economic reasons (because old people are delaying retirement as a consequence of the 2008 crisis and due to declining work retirement benefits), but because making thousands of dollars a month posting pictures online sure beats standing hours behind a counter for minimum wage interacting with dumb customers and inept, over-bearing bosses. On /r/wallstreetbets it’s not uncommon to find college students turning a few thousand dollars into small fortunes trading stock options. Although option trading existed in the ’90s, it was much more limited and restricted to institutional investors, but nowadays apps such as Robinhood allow anyone to trade.

As another example of how technology is allowing young people to make more money than ever before, here’s a recent viral article about a 16-year-old who made $200,000 with Runescape. That sure beats delivering newspapers or flipping burgers, which is how most teens made money in the pre-internet era. And as discussed in part 13, the rise of the information technology sector over the past decade, in addition to the post-2009 economic and stock market boom, which is the longest economic expansion and bull market ever, has created many young millionaires in the tech and finance sectors, whereas in the ’90s such jobs either didn’t exist or weren’t as lucrative as they are today. It’s not uncommon on popular subs such as /r/investing. /r/financialindependence, and /r/personalfinace to find many stories of young people who have struck it rich in tech, then the invested the proceeds in the stock market and or real estate, making even more money in the process, with some being able to retire as young as their 30’s.

But what about musicians and athletes of the ’90s also getting rich, such as rappers and rock stars? The difference is, the entertainment industry is much more luck-dependent and dependent on connections, compared to STEM or option trading. The median income of someone in STEM exceeds that of musicians even through some rappers and rockers make a lot of money at a young age. Coding is an indispensable part of the modern economy yet relatively few people are smart enough to do it, so those who can earn a lot of money. But also, the music industry has been in a protracted decline, as far back as the late ’90s, due to declining album sales and fragmentation. Instead of having to spend $18 on a CD full of filler, which was great for record labels but not so great for consumers, people can just just download individual tracks online à la carte. Furthermore, musicians aren’t making much either, with the exception of a handful of top acts. Athletes can make a lot of money in the short-term, but careers are often cut short by injury, and medical expenses are high.

Many young people now aspire to be in technology, math/physics, or finance, which are doing better than ever and are more meritocratic and bestow prestige and status, than arts and entertainment, which have been in a slump, don’t pay that well, and are nepotistic. Philosophy, literature, and history, because they are perceived as intellectually rigorous and have not yet become too politicized, are an exception to this. I think gender studies and African American studies and other humanities are in decline, as the rise of Quillette and Jordan Peterson shows. It’s not just conservatives, but also many centrists, moderates, and even liberals agree that there is a crisis in the humanities, are tired of the self-censorship and left-wing bias in academia. Higher education is not about advancing a political agenda or protecting people from uncomfortable ideas, but about the pursuit of truth and knowledge, at both a practical and aesthetic level.

On the flip side, although the past decade has been great for the investing class and tech class, perhaps the ’90s were better for the working and average-IQ class. Not everyone can be a millionaire or billionaire tech company founder, a Bain or McKinsey consultant, a YouTube or Instagram superstar, a software developer, an investment banker, or a cryptocurrency or option trading whiz. People of average IQ and ability are possibly falling between the cracks, unable to participate in the otherwise strong tech-and-finance-driven economy. There’s tons of wealth being created, but much of it it seems concentrated in the hands of a few. This is why there is the juxtaposition of today’s competitive economy with the acceptance or reconciliation of mediocrity, whether it’s popular subs such as /r/aftergifted or massively up-vpoted memes on /r/funny, the shared narrative being coping with failing to meet the high expectations America’s increasingly competitive, credential-driven economy and society imposes, where so many people are striving to get into top tech firms and top universities.

The article I Grew Up Gifted, But My Life Didn’t Turn Out The Way I Expected went viral on Hacker News because many millennials and gen-z who attended gifted education classes have to deal with the letdown of not only being average but as adults, but failing to meet the high expectations set by their parents and teachers. This is why posts about coping with mediocrity and ‘being average’ go viral, such as a recent New York Times article Let’s Hear It for the Average Child, because by statistical certainty, most people are condemned to mediocrity.

And despite being of the ‘right’, I agree with Tim Pool and others of the so-called alt-center/middle that millennials have legitimate grievances and am not so quick to dismiss such concerns, whether it’s student loan debt or the tough economy and labor market, but perspective is also needed. Growing up during one of two world wars, the Great Depression, in the 70’s (Disco and high inflation), or having to fight in Vietnam seems objectively worse than what today’s young people are going through.