Marty McFly, post-materialism, and the FUTURE! (of American growth).

I was watching Back to the Future 2 (the one that actually takes place in the future) in my pajamas last weekend, and after tuning in and out, began to pay attention when Marty asks – “Tell me about my future. I know I make it big, but do I become, like, a rich rock star?”

A lot of ink has been spilled lately about how our generation is different, like this NYTimes Magazine piece on emerging adulthood. A lot of us are taking our time to decide what paths to pursue after school, and in my experience, money isn’t playing much of a role in our decision making. No one I know has taken vows of poverty or anything, but making a ton of money is simply not on their list of priorities. It seems like people are comfortable with minimalist attitudes towards life at this age – preferring the flexibility of being able to pick up and move on to the next big adventure rather than dealing with accoutrements of wealth – which usually turn out to be liabilities. Perhaps it’s a sour grapes effect from an economy that seems to be getting along fine without their expensive, college-educated selves. Even if they are motivated by wealth, they certainly don’t broadcast it. Maybe I’m self-selecting here, but the folks I socialize with are driven far more by fulfillment, adventure, and expression than their predecessors.

Granted, I’m taking my cues from depictions of people my age in ’80s movies, but Marty McFly is pure Americana – the archetype American kid. He’s brash, impulsive, discards all reason when someone brands him with cowardice, and fundamentally fair-minded. But he’s also an opportunist, focused on getting rich. He buys the sports almanac in order to place sure bets and win big monies.

In this column, David Brooks calls our generation “post-material,” contrasting us with baby-boomers whose “hard-hearted…feverish materialism” built American prosperity as we know it. I think a lot of us retain that entrepreneurial drive, but it isn’t aimed at becoming fabulously wealthy. It’s aimed increasingly at socially conscious endeavors, or simply because we’re obsessed with creating the next big thing. Also, innovation is cheaper than ever because improvements in quality of life aren’t coming from having more durables (cars etc.), but from increased connections with people we care about. And most of that relies on computers and code – not hard labor.

Which makes me apprehensive about the future of the middle class in this country. If someone with the next big idea can bring it to market and create millions of dollars in value without creating jobs, then the gulf between the rich and the wealthy is only going to get wider.

While I think Generation Y retains a lot of the things we love about Marty, we aren’t as concerned with wealth. But I don’t think that is as consequential for growth as other structural concerns, such as the increasing returns to capital as technology makes each human exponentially more productive. It might make persons richer, but it may have the effect of making people poorer. It’s worth thinking about.

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