What’s So Hilarious When a Millennial WSJ-Reporter Says What an App Does is New & Life-Changing Though We’ve Been Doing It for 3 Decades

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Wolf Richter wolfstreet.com, www.amazon.com/author/wolfrichter

Where are the grizzled editors to stop this? Has ageism reached the point where they don’t have grown-ups working there anymore?

Dear millennials, I love watching you come up with new stuff and invent things, even those things that we’ve been using for decades (just not on a smartphone), and I love the fresh thinking and new ideas you bring to the table, but please don’t write stuff like this without first asking a grown-up who is not your mom or dad. And dear Wall Street Journal, please put your grizzled editors back to work. Ageism is fine and new blood and expense cuts are needed, I understand, but good lordy, someone should have caught this. Otherwise you keep entertaining us with this unintentional hilarity.

This is what happened. The Wall Street Journal published an article by an emphatically self-proclaimed millennial reporter based in its New York bureau. For those still clinging to their paper-paper, it appeared today under the title, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.”

This reporter writes at the WSJ about personal finance, such as “Pros and Cons of 529 Accounts for College,” or “If You’re Considering an Annuity, Start by Understanding What You Get.” Obviously, he’s a smart kid and a good writer, at the bottom of what (I wish for him) will be a long and interesting learning curve, not cut short by bots or ageism when his turn comes.

So it’s not his fault.

A grizzled editor should have read the first few paragraphs of the draft and called the reporter in for a come-to-Jesus meeting. That’s what the learning curve is all about. But what did the WSJ do with its grizzled editors? Where did they go?

The article starts out with a survey, which forms the data on which the article is then based – a sample with the sample size of n=1, namely his parents. From there, he extrapolates to the universe, drawing conclusions about how millennials are in a new world:

To get a sense of how different spending is for my generation than for my parents’ generation, just consider one simple transaction: a utility bill. When my parents paid their utility bill, they had to take out their checkbook, put pen to paper, write a check and then record it in their checkbook. If they didn’t know how much their utility bill was, they had to be willfully ignorant.

My utility bill is paid automatically from my banking app. For me to know how much my utility bill is, I have to be willfully diligent. And the truth is, sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not.

I’m not just talking about utility bills here, of course. As for most other millennials I know, technology has made paying all sorts of bills so easy that we don’t even have to think about it. And that’s the problem: By making personal finance so much easier to do, technology also has made it so much easier to ignore.

He veers into how this new technology of an app that miraculously pays for things automatically has changed life as we know it:

But in doing so, it has severed the connection between the things we buy and the act of paying for those things.

It’s that connection, though, that can keep our financial lives on track—making sure we save enough, and spend on the things that really matter.

The whole article is about how this new miraculous technology of automatic payments makes us lose “control over our money.”

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This is hilarious for a grizzled guy like me.

I have been on automatic payments since about 1990. Using the antediluvian communication tools of a wired telephone and snail-mail, I arranged having all my bills paid automatically by having them charged to my credit cards, and I arranged to have my credit cards paid off automatically via direct ACH debit on my bank account. I also set up my mortgage payments as ACH debit to my bank account. Lots of people did this. You could go on line (PC, dialup) to check on it, but you didn’t need to. And you could look at the paper statements for your own edification, but you didn’t need to.

This part of my financial life has been automated for nearly three decades. It’s not new to me though it’s new to our millennial reporter.

It allowed me to leave the US in February 1996 and travel to 100 or so countries on all continents, including about 25 countries in Africa, where communication with the outside world was impossible for weeks at a time (can you even imagine that, dear millennial?). And throughout these three years while I was gone, my mortgage and my bills ran on automatic pilot, keeping my home in place for the day that I might return. Which was in February 1999.

I never planned to be gone for more than a few months, but one thing led to another. I was 40 at the time, and needed to catch a breath of fresh air. You can read about the first part of this life-changing experience in my book, BIG LIKE, which is mostly about the segment in Japan, where I lost my moorings.

The entire journey was made possible by automatic payments. I used my credit cards to get big cash advances in a few big cities where I could, so that I could live off the cash where credit cards were not accepted, as I traveled mostly overland through China, Mongolia, Russia, other parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. And the credit cards were paid off automatically. I just needed to have enough money in my bank account. Yup, 1996-1999.

The hilarity spreads with this quaint paragraph:

My parents and others of their generation describe to me a process that would entail three separate points of contact whenever they swiped a credit card: first, at the cash register, then when a bill came in the mail and finally when they wrote a check to cover it. On each separate occasion, they were presented with their decision to buy something and forced to assess the wisdom of that purchase and the impact it had on their account balances.

Yes, you can still do it this way if you like, but at least since 1990, you didn’t need to do it that way. The WSJ reporter is just seeing automatic payments for the first time and thinks the technology is new.

Paying bills was an act done with militaristic precision on weekend mornings. Envelopes were opened, pens were uncapped and checks were signed and then ripped in strict four-four time. My generation has traded that cadence for something with a structure akin to free jazz.

Good lordy… grizzled editor, please stop this in its tracks, I beg you. Or at least cut out clueless generalities such as “my generation has” and replace them with “I have.” But no. The WSJ allows its reporter to continue it a relentlessly hilarious cluelessness:

While each of the checkpoints from the original process is technically still there, automation has given people a chance to skip the two that happen after the initial card swipe. And when it comes to bills paid automatically through a banking app, even the first checkpoint is gone. We know it’s happening in the background, but it’s so far out of view that it might as well not be there.

Yes, I already knew that and did that in the early 1990s.

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Grizzled editor, where art thou?

It’s obvious why such a system is appealing. As one 25-year-old friend described it to me, it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that frees him from daily money anxiety while simultaneously ensuring that he doesn’t miss a payment.

Yes, this was “appealing” to me too, when I was in my mid-30s, nearly 30 years ago, when I set it up, like so many others of “my generation.” It was effortless at the time, and it’s still effortless. I do none of it on a “banking app.” No app needed.

Just because you weren’t around at the time, or because you were too young to notice, or because the folks in your sample of 1 didn’t do it doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist and that people didn’t do it….

And this sort of I-invented-sex hilarity continues:

But these arms’ length transactions come with a high price. A financial professional I talked to says the biggest concern is that it fosters a basic financial ignorance. If you don’t constantly think about where your money goes, you won’t think about whether you’re spending it wisely.

No, “financial ignorance” is not fostered by automatic payment systems. It’s fostered by the desire to remain financially ignorant, as in “I don’t want to know because I don’t care.” By contrast, using an automatic payment system is the result of a triage of priorities, as in “I’ve got more important things to do in life.”

For me, automatic payments have worked perfectly well since the early 1990s. Others still prefer writing checks. Whatever works for them is fine. The issue isn’t personal preference. The issue is that the WSJ got rid of its grizzled editors to stop a clueless young reporter from embarrassing the paper with a story about something totally new and awesome – automatic payments – that changes life as we know it though we have been using it for three decades, and life is still kind of the same.

And at the end, there’s the spit-out-coffee moral of the story.

The good news is that what technology has taken, it can also give. Much of the battle is simply recognizing what we’ve lost. After all, we don’t miss what we don’t know we miss.

Upon reading this, grizzled editors would have spit out their coffee and rolled on the floor laughing. But they were let go because they were too expensive, and too critical and had too much experience and knowledge, and were too hard to please and get stuff by, and because they poked holes into stories, and reporters would have to redo them or scuttle them. And so these grizzled editors were too inconvenient and costly in an industry that is switching to bots writing news stories in a millisecond, and so they got shafted.

And the millennial reporters end up with the short end of the stick because there’s no one there to help them up the learning curve with an occasional come-to-Jesus meeting.


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