Last May, the Brookings Institute published a report entitled “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.” The report explains that Millennials (born 1982-2003) care less about money than previous generations. They save more but invest less. They give to causes rather than institutions. They value meaningful work more than the accumulation of wealth. Above all, they generally distrust financial institutions.
These findings (and a growing body of research on the topic) highlight a significant shift in our society’s relationship with money. Previous generations linked money to social status, success, hard work, retirement, family stability, even spirituality. And for most of the twentieth century, though nobody exactly equated money with God, it was nevertheless given sacred status.
In 1914, a Methodist minister named Harvey Calkins was tasked by the denomination with revising the way churches discussed money. The result was a book entitled A Man and His Money. In it, Calkins provided church leaders with a new approach to fundraising that he called “stewardship.” The idea is that everything belongs to God and people are just managers, or stewards, of God’s abundant blessings.
This was a renewed version of John Wesley’s view of money: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” What Calkins added, though, was a kind of financial idealism. He wrote that there was no more pressing concern than that “the average man shall recognize the spiritual content of money.” Money and goods are “marks of [God’s] peculiar grace,” so people are spiritually obligated to earn all they can. Godly people have the “right to be rich,” and only the godly can wisely manage such riches.
Calkins was not alone in his financial idealism. Napoleon Hill, a disciple of Andrew Carnegie, wrote a global bestseller in 1937 entitled Think and Grow Rich. For Hill, the pursuit of wealth was a religious activity requiring great faith and spiritual discipline: “The object is to want money, and to become so determined to have it that you convince yourself you will have it.” He explained that Christianity has great potential because its founder, Jesus, had the ability to turn faith into reality. Such is the model for what people ought to do with money: yearn and crave it so much you force it into being.
While a bit absurd to the modern reader, Think and Grow Rich has sold over 70 million copies, and 70 years later, it continues to find new readers. According to Wikipedia, it is the bestselling non-fiction book of all time.
These are bold, successful ideas about the virtue and spiritual character of money. But it’s looking like the Millennial generation is going to downgrade money’s spiritual status.
Millennials are more likely to associate wealth with deceit and debauchery than divine blessing. The Millennial zeitgeist surrounding money involves The Wolf of Wall Street, the Occupy movement, Lehman Brothers, and intentionally disruptive technology. Today, it is far more appealing (and even spiritual) to criticize wealth than to seek it. Money has lost its mystique.
Millennials are right in viewing money with suspicion. It’s a healthy correction to the views of previous generations. Money, after all, is a human creation and making it sacred corrupts our relationship with it. Money needs to be understood, critiqued, revised, and regulated, but not worshiped.
Image courtesy of Tax Credits.