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The Teenage Economy


Most curious about this particular site, however, is something else: For every post about kids and allowances, there is a nearly equal number of wives complaining that their “DH’s”—darling husbands—don’t give them enough allowance; also prevalent, if not quite as common, are working women wondering if they’re giving their spouses enough of an allowance. Such dilemmas, for all their eye-rolling absurdity, reveal just how contentious money matters are inside a family—in some households, parents and children end up competing with one another.

Which brings up another cultural shift: In a world where adults seem more and more like supersize children, kids have become increasingly adultlike, with more adult wishes and wants. When confronted about her credit-card bill, Mary couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother how she envied her—her clothes, her meals with friends at sleek restaurants, her “whole elegant thing,” as she told me. The credit card gave her a chance to emulate this lifestyle—spending felt, in many ways, like the least rebellious act in the world. Not that this is an excuse. “I’m so ashamed,” she says of the ordeal. “I don’t even know how to talk about it without sounding obnoxious, but please understand that this wasn’t me.

I was at summer school at Yale, sitting in class, when my mom calls. She says to me, all worried, ‘Honey, someone stole your credit card and spent $15,000. At . . . clubs!’ I’d basically stolen my own credit card and was spending like a thief. I wanted to write her a letter apologizing before the bill came, but I chickened out.”

Once the anger subsided, Elyse found that she could, to a degree, sympathize with Mary. “We live in a Manhattan microclimate that has become so entitled that it’s really hard to instill a system that actually does what it’s supposed to do,” she says. In the early eighties, Elyse moved her family from the Upper East Side to Chelsea to avoid the ubiquitous materialism; by the nineties, Chelsea seemed a lot more like the Upper East Side. “Mary wanted to impress her friends by spending all that money,” she says. “She still won’t tell me who she was with. I hate to pull the whole ‘when I was a kid I walked twenty miles in the snow’ thing, but the fact is that everyone worked. It was part of growing up. All the seeds of what I’d need to be self-sufficient were in place before I was an adult. These kids don’t have that.”

In the end, Mary was given a debit card, which has a set monthly limit. “She can spend that money however she wants,” says Elyse, “and if she runs out before the month is up, it’s her problem.”

The matter, however, continues to reverberate in the house. “My husband—he comes from a very middle-class background, he always worked from the time he was 12—finds it all very worrisome,” she says. “He especially doesn’t understand the whole New York thing. He’s always asking Mary what she’s doing for the human race and how’s she going to support herself. He just can’t process the lifestyle choices of the kids she knows. I have to say, knowing what I know now, the way money dominates this city is a reason to raise kids somewhere else.”

The Hilton Effect
While leaving the hot-money climate of New York City might help a little, you’d need to retreat into a dark cave to escape a pop culture that worships at the altar of youth and money. VH1 airs a show (seemingly every hour) called Fabulous Life Of, which picks over the ostentatious spending habits of celebrities, many not yet out of their teens. Last year, MTV had a hit with Rich Girls, a reality show about the fabulous life of Tommy Hilfiger’s teenage daughter, Ally, and her friends, which was especially strange for kids in the city: You knew those girls, or at least knew someone who knew them, which can feel like the same thing. With all this comes a cognizance of wealth among kids that adults rarely know how to deal with. When a Horace Mann student wrote an article for the school paper identifying a certain irony of the presidential election—that while most parents seemed to support Kerry, they’d be better off voting for Bush given their income bracket—the story was killed. That the argument was almost certainly true was beside the point. The extraordinarily wealthy, according to the school’s apparent logic, were not supposed to think they were extraordinarily wealthy.

The problem is that enforcing such an old-school omertà code comes off as ridiculous in an era in which Wasp culture’s reigning princess is Paris Hilton. To adults, she may be sleazy, tragic, incomprehensible; but what fascinates kids is her business savvy. She not only has money; she’s made it seem like a kid can make some serious cash doing just about . . . anything. And generating your own income means being able to skirt parental control.

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