It’s college selection season in America, and as millions of our young adults finish high school and yet another cohort of millions leaves college for the job market, it’s a good time to think about how well our young people are prepared for life. It is not just about the hard and soft skills necessary for rapidly changing industries, the global market, and the new economy, but also about having the mental tools required to make important decisions that will determine the course of their lives and the broader material and social health of our society.
For a nation that often seems more obsessed with money than others (and is richer than most), we seem to know very little about how money actually works. As has been frequently reported by multiple studies, Americans young and old score very low on surveys measuring our understanding of even the most basic concepts in personal finance, such as savings, debt, and investment.
Why does this matter? We are in the midst of large-scale demographic and economic trends that are putting a lot of pressure on the system. These include: high student debt combined with stagnant wages, shifting employment models including part-time work (often with few benefits), an aging population with soaring health care costs, and a shrinking percentage of people who can count on pensions for their retirement,, and so on. The stark reality is that more and more decisions that determine how well we do in the future are being placed into our own hands. Being able to own or rent appropriate housing, pay for our children’s educations and retire at a reasonable age (if at all!) requires us to make better financial decisions. We are woefully unprepared for this. Worse, the research also shows that various minority groups as well as women score even lower than the already low averages. The implications are significant.
So how do we learn about money today? Often our financial “habits” are copied from our parents who, by their own admission, often feel that they themselves have not made good decisions. These money conversations, or the opportunities to have them, are limited. Furthermore, money concepts and financial literacy are simply not part of a person’s general schooling; according to the Council on Economic Education, only five states in the country require a stand-alone personal finance course for high-school graduation.
The few curricula that do exist are often dry and technical, concentrating on the math or banking-specific aspects of money, rather than trying to make the concepts relevant and interesting to the lives of young adults with increasingly short attention spans. Many of these offerings are little more than marketing vehicles for financial institutions that want to “educate” future buyers of their products. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself — savings and retirement planning are clearly critically important things to understand and to avail of — it’s not hard to see how the educational mission can be misaligned to a curriculum expressly designed with a marketing intent.
How to improve this? Understanding the relationship between one’s personal choices and priorities and the money needs and consequences that go along with them would seem to be the most basic sort of information that one could provide to everybody. Even talking about the fact that things such as life priorities, including family, education, health, leisure and so on, are closely related to money seems to be missing in the conversation. Whether because of cultural, religious or other social overlays, economic accident, or other reasons best left to sociologists to explain, we seem to live in a society where we often build a wall between our finances and what we may call our “real lives.”
It’s hard to argue that arming ourselves with the knowledge to make better decisions about money and life wouldn’t result in better personal financial outcomes. But there is also a greater good for society that would come of a clearer understanding of how money works. How much money does the average American make in their lifetime? How much do they spend on education? Housing? Healthcare? Educating their children? I doubt most people, even highly educated ones, know the answers to these questions, even for their own particular case.
As citizens, it’s important to understand how things such as the financial markets, trade, taxes, Medicare and so on actually work (and how they are paid for or contribute to paying for things). It is fundamental to making civic and social decisions intelligently. It is shocking to observe the uninformed claims made by politicians and commentators on both sides of the political spectrum regarding many basic economic concepts and mechanisms. Whether this is attributable to ignorance or willful deceit, the citizenry needs to have better knowledge to make decisions that are actually in their best interest. Understanding how these things work is good not only for individual outcomes, but for society as a whole.
Life is not all about money. But it would be foolish to ignore how closely interlinked it is with all the other things we care about in life – health, comfort, safety, family, security. Let’s give our younger generations a better chance to fulfill their dreams and build a better future for us all by educating them responsibly. Maybe they’ll even teach us a thing or two.