Teen Expectations in an Erratic Economy

Editors' note: In this five-part series, youth workers explore trends in culture, technology, and economics. They consider how we prepare young people for the world they will inherit as adults, in such a way that they remain faithful to and fruitful for Christ. To learn more about the contributors and how Rooted advances grace-driven youth ministry, check out their site and fall conference in New York City.


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I remember an astonishingly optimistic conversation with a bright, talented friend who was finishing up college at Vanderbilt in 2002. As he weighed whether to attend an Ivy League institution for law school or to accept a full scholarship to a JD/MBA program at Vanderbilt, he proclaimed his goal: “To make a million dollars by the time I am 30.”

I thought this was ambitious but not unreasonable. In America at that time, many 20-somethings who preceded us made small fortunes in finance, technology, and real estate. I knew people who had accumulated a million dollars by age 30.

But then he clarified his goal: “No, I intend to make a million dollars in one year by the time I am 30. “

Some may call this notion outrageous, but this hope was consistent with the positive expectations of the economy in previous generations.

Twelve years later in 2014, I had a similar conversation about expectations of the future with an extraordinarily bright 23-year-old woman who had graduated from a top-20 national university. As we looked into the future, she scoffed at the idea of exceeding her parents’ material wealth and simply said, “My friends and I just hope we don’t have to depend on our parents to pay our bills.”

It was a stark contrast but one that reflects the shift in mindset over the past decade in the wake of economic difficulty in America. The majority of American young people forecast a bleak outlook on the financial future.

Some look at the slow recovery of the last five years as a sign that American prosperity will continue. Others view astronomical national debt and the stagnant GDP as indicators that an economic catastrophe will come in the next decade.

Regardless of economic prognostications, one position is undoubtedly accurate: the future economy will be unpredictable. A healthy degree of wisdom probably underlies the skeptical viewpoint of young people who view the economy as mutable and unreliable.

Given the amount of economic uncertainty, how do we spiritually prepare students for a fruitful, peaceful life?

1. Set realistic, biblical expectations about how much control we have over the future.

In suburban settings, families often invest exorbitant resources in tutors, coaches, trainers, SAT/ACT prep, summer scholars programs, and private schools in order to maximize opportunities for admission to an elite college. There’s nothing inherently wrong with aiming to attend a prestigious college. However, some young people believe that an impressive college degree automatically translates to an affluent life. They also believe that landing a job in particular industries guarantees financial security.

I have seen friends with graduate degrees from Ivy League schools struggle to find work. I have watched a friend in distressed real estate become independently wealthy through the economic collapse of 2008, while another lost a life-altering, unrecoverable amount of money during the same period.

One of the primary themes of Ecclesiastes is the unpredictability of life. The Preacher writes in Ecclesiastes 9:1, “But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.” While students work to make themselves attractive and qualified for the job market, parents and ministers serve them well by reinforcing that ultimate control lies in the hands of God, not man and his efforts. Young people can become disillusioned with life when they carry an expectation that if they follow certain steps, then financial success awaits them, when, in reality, human effort offers no guarantees.

2. Promote security in God’s provision.

At the bottom of everyone’s trepidation about the economy resides a fear that we will end up sleeping in a gutter or eating out of a garbage dumpster. Kids may be tempted to work neurotically to prepare themselves for the job market or be tempted to take unethical shortcuts to cover their basic financial needs. All kids need a firm foundation of trust in their ultimate Provider. They need to know the name of God, Jehovah-jireh, the “God who provides” or “the God who sees our needs.” While students try to prepare for their careers, as they rightly should, they need to know that the most significant thing they can do is trust and depend on God for their provision.

3. Go to war with the materialism idol.

Another layer of anxiety relates to illusions about the comfort and security that money provides. Many suburban kids view home ownership, fancy vacations, retirement, new cars, the latest iPhone, and designer clothes as a birthright and necessity. The idea of living in an apartment, never retiring, or owning a flip phone terrifies them. Meanwhile, students from lower-income areas may develop the perception from television and movies that wealth offers the panacea for all of life’s problems.

Comfort and security come only from the Lord. I have lived among both extraordinarily affluent people and deeply impoverished people in different seasons of life. They both exhibit equal levels of contentment and dissatisfaction at times. Materialism constitutes one of the biggest idols in American culture. Students need us to vigorously deconstruct, early and often, the false expectations that come with any idol, especially money. They need to know that real, stable comfort and contentment originate in an intimate relationship with God, where we live with Christ as our King.

4. Teach good, old-fashioned biblical wisdom on money.

What financial guru Dave Ramsey refers to as the things your grandmother taught you about money may also be described as biblical wisdom. The Bible promotes old-fashioned values like hard work, avoiding debt, and rainy-day savings (Col. 3:23, Prov. 22:26-27, Prov. 21:20). Parents can prepare kids for the future economy with simple lessons like saving money and creating a budget. Encouraging teenagers to be faithful, diligent servants in their various endeavors only helps them as they approach the future. While preparing students theologically is of the utmost importance, the Bible also promotes practical wisdom on money that serves young people well for the future.

Altogether, the most important lesson we can teach young people is that the greatest treasure they can possess is knowing, loving, and worshiping Jesus.