It’s that special time again in the U.S. when people are hooting and hollering about the Olympics. Families put down their smart phones for a minute and gather around their tvs expectantly, waiting for our country to crush the competition.
This year so far we haven’t been disappointed: the women’s gymnastic team is blowing every other country out of the water as many had expected. Late Tuesday night Michael Phelps wins his 21st gold medal in the Men’s 200m freestyle, making him the most decorated Olympian in history many times over.
It’s a proud time to be an American and yet, I can’t help feeling guilty. Much of our accomplishment as a nation is not due to Americans being awesome, it’s due to us having money.
Most of our athletes come from very privileged backgrounds compared to their opponents. Michael Phelps grew up in a small town near Baltimore, Maryland. He began swimming when he was 7, already earning a national record by 10. Phelps never had to work to help support a struggling family, he could focus on his swimming
Maybe some of our athletes even grew up in the U.S. standard of poverty. They did not, however, have to deal with things like not having clean water to drink or worrying when the next bomb would go off. Our athletes always have supportive shoes to wear and comfy beds to sleep in. I’m sure it’s a lot easier to swim fast if you got a good night’s sleep.
When I watch the U.S. Olympic team I think about myself. I’m a middle class white girl who grew up in a little suburban farmhouse. I’ve always been warm at night, I’ve always had new clothes, I’ve always gotten every bit of education my little heart desired. I have not, in any real sense, had to work for anything.
I’m not denying that being a world class olympian takes hard work. I am saying that most of us growing up here were given circumstances that helped us succeed, and we aren’t telling the whole story when we take the credit.
The hardships in our lives are mostly of an emotional nature. I have the extreme luxury of having all of my physical needs met and end up worrying about things like break-ups and what my coworker said about me. Sure, I have had financial hardship. The hot poker of debt was driven into my back and it got me on track. Today I know how to save money and live under my means. But my hardships have been nothing compared to what people go through in Africa, for example.
The median household income in the U.S. was $53,000 in 2014. Meanwhile, Gallup estimates the median household income on a global scale was $9,000. If you make $30,000 per year you are in the global 1%. You. Are. Rich.
Most people in western nations don’t see things this way. When you spend your whole life in a place where everyone is privileged, it’s easy to forget your good fortune. We get used to spending money on comforts and luxuries, until our huge incomes barely cover our living expenses.
In the same way our athletes don’t realize their privilege, I don’t think early retirees see their privilege.
Being part of the PF community I meet all sorts of people at different stages of pursuing financial independence. There are people who always made great decisions and have wonderful careers where they make large incomes. There are people who don’t have large incomes but are very successful at side hustles, then there are still others who got a late start on saving but are crushing debt at an amazing pace.
The stories we read about people who retire at 30 are incredibly inspiring, but can I just say one thing about that? They had a lot of things go right for them to make that happen.
Retiring at an early age requires an above average salary, which generally means early access to good education and/or strong managerial skills that led to promotions or successful entrepreneurship.
Around the world most people don’t even get a chance to strive for the things we do easily here. There is a huge subset of people early retirement just isn’t available to, and I think that is not a story we tell often.
What if you had kids in high school? It’s that much more difficult to get ahead in life. What if you were like me, you did badly in school and didn’t get your act together until your mid 20s? Retirement is that much further away.
The ability to save large sums of money, just like the ability to compete at the olympics, is strongly tied to privilege.
The success of the U.S. in sport, year after year, shows the immense impact economic privilege has. Do people in other countries just suck at sports? No. It’s that we were given so many advantages in life and it’s had a major effect on performance.
So if you think that you got to where you are today because you’re awesome you are fairly mistaken. You made good decisions and took action, probably studied hard and devoted your time to your school, your career, or even your family. But you also got where you are through a support system of people helping you at each step of the process.
Next time life throws some difficulty at you, I challenge you to change your perspective. Remember how immensely gifted you are to be here.