We’re comfortable talking about money and finance in public. We criticize Wall Street all the time. We talk about unemployment. We talk about poverty.
Money, however, is off-limits in private conversation. Bringing up income, or the costs of rent, vacations, and consumer goods, is condemned as tacky and distasteful. But why? If we prioritize happiness over money, then why still the repression? Moreover, as a taboo that has rolled over from previous generations, our silence is inherently conservative – unexpected for anti-establishment young people. If we abandoned other former taboos – such as discussion of sex – then do we still hold on to this taboo of money?
Let’s reflect for a moment on how much we care about money not only for our practical needs, but also for our self-esteem. Society rewards us for our work with money, which gives us the freedom to buy economic security and material goods beyond our basic needs. At a psychological level, money is society’s way of measuring the value of our work and by extension, especially for Americans, a way of measuring ourselves. Even if we oppose the capitalist system at a conscious level, humans still crave external evaluation; we accept that money endows not only our survival, but also our egos.
According to this philosophy, we don’t talk about money with each other because we begin to compare ourselves with others. If I find out that I make less money than my friend for the same labor, I feel cheated. Even if I have no idea whether my friend “deserves” the income, I have a bias towards my own skills - it’s human nature to think we’re better than others. By not bringing up this subject, we are protecting ourselves.
Our means of skirting around the money issue is similar to the way that students treat grades and test scores. As students we don’t share our teachers’ evaluations with one another. If we do, we begin comparing ourselves to our peers, and we’ve all felt that outrage when someone-not-as-smart-as-us gets a better grade on that essay. But the school metaphor only approximates the money taboo. Differences in grades may affect us in the short run, but they won’t necessarily impact our lives on a large scale. Differences in salary, however, can have more immediate real-life consequences in terms of day-to-day security and the ability to purchase the goods you want or need.
The public openness and private silence reflect how much we value money as valuation of ourselves. In fact, Occupy Wall Street is not anti-money – it’s anti-inequality: the 99% wants a bigger piece of the pie, not no pie at all. As much as we protest financial excess, we still want finance. The seeming anti-money spirit of our generation has been caused more by the short-term disillusionment with the job market and the desire to distinguish ourselves as a generation than by a revolutionary desire to renounce money. If we question why we are silent in private, we may come closer to having more open, honest, and productive conversation about money among ourselves.
Occupy Wall Street, Taxes, and Personal Finance: What Do Millennials Think About Money?