(A Reader Asks:) My younger relatives, now adults, are all asking me the same question: When does my life start? They finally get out of college and enter the workforce, only to find layoffs, declining opportunities and a generally awful environment. So what do I tell them?

Michael’s Response:

Of course, your nieces and nephews and cousins all know that life has started and they don’t get to return any of their bad days for good ones. The real  question they’re asking is, “Why me? Why did my older brother/sister graduate and get a good job and a condo and, now that it’s my turn, the economy sucks.”

And you can safely tell your relatives that it’s all a conspiracy against them, that God likes their older siblings better, that they are doomed to suffer and life will never get better.

Or you can tell them to grow a pair.

Does that seem a bit harsh? Sorry, but it’s a genuine case of tough love. I’d hate for your young relatives to waste even a moment of their lives in turmoil over things they cannot change.  I would love for them, instead, to recognize how much tougher, smarter and more confident they will be as a result of the challenging period we’re in now.

I have a friend who spent some of his youth in a refugee camp. He came to the States, built a business, lost it and started over again. He wasn’t happy with failing and having to start over, of course. After life in a refugee camp, however, losing a business wasn’t exactly a big strain on his ability to cope with life’s disappointments.

My own adulthood began with me getting fired from my first job and laid off from my third, during a period of oil shortages, economic stagnation and high inflation. It was tough and depressing, but I learned a lot of lessons that have served me well since then. Like everyone, I wish I didn’t have to learn anything the hard way, but I’m glad I’ve had the benefit of those insights as new challenges arose.

Even if we don’t decide to move to a refugee camp, going through the rough periods when we’re younger has a number of payoffs throughout our lives:

  • We learn how to protect ourselves by saving or taking fewer risks, and those lessons stick with us because they’re part of our “formative” adult experience.
  • We become more resilient, which makes us more capable of dealing with the inevitable negatives that occur later in life.
  • We get all kinds of stories to tell our grandchildren about how much harder we had it in the old days, making us as crotchety and boring as our own grandparents.

We don’t get to choose when we’re born or to whom, where we’ll grow up or what kind of economy will await us when we enter the work force. We just have to deal with it, even if we want to whine about it from time to time.

In the end, life is like a MacGyver episode. You look around and find a lot of junk. But if you have the right insights, you can make a lot out of it.

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