The Internet turned 50 last month, and from covfefe to LOLcats, it has given us much to be thankful for. Yet it has also brought a lot of um, angst, and its 50th birthday coincided with yet another social media-fueled culture war—this time of the generational sort. You might have seen “Ok, boomer” popping up on t-shirts, Twitter feeds and wherever else people get their online kicks these days.[i] From what I gather as a typical out-of-touch Gen X-er, it is a thing Millennials say in jest to respond to Baby Boomers who seem to merely patronize their concerns about climate change and the environment. It got even more popular when a member of New Zealand’s parliament used it as a rejoinder to a heckler who interrupted her in a climate change debate. And then it turned to full-on generational class war when people took the following quote from AARP Media’s editorial director out of context: “Ok, Millennials. But we’re the people that actually have the money.” This article isn’t about any of the social media backlash. Nor will you find a stock market takeaway until the end, which, sorry. Rather, it is about how a certain Baby Boomer and whip-smart Millennials are sort of proving her point and, in the process, using free markets to improve the environment. Consider it a Thanksgiving feel-good story.
The Boomer in question is one James Dyson—creator of the eponymous vacuum cleaner, fan and hair dryer. I owe my clean carpets and shiny hair to him.[ii] His bagless vacuums and HEPA filters have improved quality of life for many and helped reduce waste in landfills. In the process of making many of our lives better through capitalism, he has also become loaded, with a net worth of about $13.9 billion according to the Sunday Times Rich List. Yes, that makes him a Boomer with the money. Lots of it. So much so that some politicians would tell you this status shouldn’t exist, that it amounts to a lopsided distribution of capital that starves the economy of growth and innovation. The problem with this theory is that it is demonstrably false.
For, you see, James Dyson does not keep his riches locked away in a vault. From what I have read, he does not have an indoor pool full of gold coins in which he takes a morning swim, Scrooge McDuck-style. Much of his net worth is invested, supporting job creation and new technologies. But he also likes to have some fun and do some good, so he created a charitable trust, the James Dyson Foundation, that sponsors an annual James Dyson Award. As The Guardian reports: “It challenges young people to ‘design something that solves a problem’ and is open to students and recent graduates in product design, industrial design and engineering.” The winner gets £30,000. Consider it seed money voluntarily redistributed from a moneyed Boomer to a Millennial (or I guess Gen Z-er) with big ideas.
This year’s winner is a gal named Lucy Hughes who—get this—created a bioplastic out of organic fish waste. Not only is it a biodegradable replacement for single-use plastics—huzzah!—but it also solves the less heralded “how do we keep fish waste out of landfills?” problem. As The Guardian reported, it is “translucent and strong, making it suitable for single-use packaging such as sandwich wrappers and bags, and will break down in home compost or food waste bins within four to six weeks.” As a California resident, might I also suggest it could be useful for straws? The concept seems far better than paper, which tends to biodegrade within four to six minutes of entering my smoothie.
All kidding aside, how cool is this? Many young folks have the big ideas and the cutting-edge training necessary to execute them. The greyer set has the money to fund them. Sometimes it gets to them via charitable initiatives and contests like this. But it also flows to them every day through the power of markets. This is obviously true when people are invested in stocks or venture capital funds—money goes to companies that pay people to make and create things. Yet it is also true of people who keep their riches in the bank. Banks aren’t just storage lockers for cash. They also lend to small businesses and entrepreneurs. For many folks starting a business, a bank loan may even be preferable to venture capital money, since it doesn’t require them to dilute their ownership stake—and potentially subject their creativity to outside interference. I love knowing that my savings back bank loans to people who are doing really cool things with the money. I love knowing that this is where the interest on my account comes from. Because, let’s face it—I’m a finance writer who couldn’t code her way out of a paper bag and doesn’t know the first thing about the chemical formulae of bioplastics or whether fish waste is a better input than corn. But other people know these things! I like knowing my savings help them access capital.
This is the beauty of free markets and a robust banking system. Capital goes to its best use, earning a return in the process. That return is an incentive for us to keep taking risk. The prospect of a big payoff is the incentive for young folks to take the astronomical risk of starting a business as opposed to taking their ideas to an existing company and signing away their patent rights. A beautiful world is one where people have the freedom to put their big ideas to work and earn a nice living while saving the planet or making life incrementally better for people generally.
And for the rest of us? When we own stocks, we own all this cool technology and progress. Look at the entire history of capital markets, and you will see how everyday folks grew their savings by investing in companies that were solving the world’s problems and inventing the future we live in now. One of many things to be thankful for as we gather around the turkey or tofurkey in two weeks.
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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.