Millennials are Screwed

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I’ve got another big long article in Highline!

Like everything I write, it began as a nitpick. For years it seemed like every time I opened a browser window, all I saw was the story of how millennials like me refused to grow up. We’re entitled, we’re hipsters, we’re living in basements, we MFA’d when we should have STEM’d. If we could just tear ourselves off of Tumblr for 10 minutes, maybe we’d find a job and quit complaining already.

I always knew this was a caricature, but it was only once I started working on this article that I learned the vast, incredible, profound wrongness of the stereotype we’ve been sold about millennials. Young people are not failing in the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy is failing them.

The hardest part of writing a story like this is knowing where to start. One of the first people I interviewed was Emma*, who I met at a homeless shelter in Seattle last spring. She’s 22 years old, trying to get onto the ladder in tech and sleeping in a church annex while she does an unpaid internship. She’s been bouncing in and out of homelessness for two years now—getting a job, starting to climb the ladder and then falling off. It turns out this is a whole Thing, a sub-field of economics called “poverty dynamics.” More than 60 percent of the U.S. population will spend at least one year in the bottom quintile of the income distribution—a percentage that’s been growing since the 1980s.

It was like this for months: Every time I met someone, they led me to a novel way that young people have it harder than their parents. Katie, a midwife who only gets paid when one of her clients goes into labor and is still paying off her occupational license, put me on the trail of domestic outsourcing. Steve, who moved to Detroit to buy a cheap house and now earns $10 an hour “making smoothies for better-off millennials,” opened up the wonderful world of zoning regulations and falling labor mobility.

Last April, when I started on this story, I had no idea I would be looking up 1970s building codes or federal regulations on pension funds or the arcane details of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. But here we are! What I found was, first, that the challenges faced by millennials are larger than I ever expected. Second, these challenges are the result of three huge and deliberate and terrifying paradigm shifts in the way our economy works and how we think about it. They all happened slowly and imperceptibly. But, like the melting of an ice cap (ahem), they are now undeniable.

So this is it, my attempt at understanding and describing and freaking out about all the ways millennials are getting screwed and what we can do about it. It’s long, it’s dark and it’s full of statistics—luckily, there are gorgeous designs to distract you!

I’ve done a bunch of interviews about the article!


Filed under Essays, Journalism

4 responses to “Millennials are Screwed

  1. Jim Toole

    Great job. As an actuary with children born 99, 00, 02, very interested in this (and scared AF). Everything we do as a profession seems geared towards Boomers. Trying to get a print version.

  2. I try not to get angry – I am an Gen-Xer, a generation that has lived in the shadow of the selfish, hollow, and fraudulent world-view espoused by Baby Boomers. I often fail, because it would require that I overlook at how fantastically they squandered an incredible opportunity to have used their unprecedented wealth, power, and relative peace to lay the foundations of a more harmonious, ecologically sustainable, and secure world for the coming generations. They were and still are intent on making sure “the good times roll” for them to the detriment, or at the expense of, others below them.

    There is no doubt the Boomers are screwing Millennials. The very existence of “interns” quite easily demonstrates this. Boomers would never have worked for free and as a Gen-Xer I know they didn’t. Not that it makes their exploitation any better, but at least Millennials are spared the disillusionment we in Gen-X possess in droves, because we actually believed the empty platitudes our parents espoused, realizing after we did what we were told – work hard, get an education and the secure future will arrive – that they did not themselves really hold up their end of the bargain. They didn’t make space for us; they didn’t show us the path. They saw us more educated, less bigoted, more earnest Gen-Xers coming up behind them and decided “we’re not gonna share the bounty”. When we came of age we were just beginning to experience the Boomers joyfully, selfishly kicking the ladder their parents – The Greatest Generation – put there to help them climb to success, just as we began scaling the lower rungs. While I have picked up deep spirituality in my middle age to attenuate my disillusionment with the lies I really believed, there is no mantra to overlook the mess created by the shadow of the hedonist, self-indulgent, virtue-less Boomer ethos, which still haunts not only the lives of Gen-Xers as it has for decades, but now that of Millennials too.

    Trump is emblematic of North American Baby Boomers and a sign that Millennials and Gen-Xers really need to set aside our differences and work together if we don’t want our futures totally undermined by these assholes. It didn’t shock me that he won, nor am I surprised by the puerile, emotional distortions by which he engages the world. I have seen Boomers behaving like that since I was a child. I was a little too precocious, and very perceptive; I always saw through the propaganda we were told about what the Boomers achieved in advancing “progressive” ideas they shallowly espoused as they were all getting high and feeling groovy as teenagers. The 80s summed up what they were really all about – touting as virtues whatever self-serving ideas tickled their fancy at the time. The “Let them eat cake” way of governing today is the final nail in the New Deal coffin the Boomer parents – who weren’t socialists, who fought a war for democracy – set up to foster a stable, responsible society for their Boomer kids.

    Boomers castigate Millennials as “snowflakes”; they castigated us Gen-Xers as “lazy” and “entitled”. Most of us have more education, have been paid way less for the same work they did for decades, are living with far more struggle and insecurity (we saw how easy they lived, first-hand), and have endured the sexist, bigoted, corrupt society they cultivated and still seem intent on defending. It is infuriating, not only that it endures, but at how unself-reflective such a vast majority Boomers (though not all, there is Bernie Sanders) are about the disreputable ideas they cling to; which they still ardently ram down the throats of those behind them, which have so remarkably undermined the peace and harmony for those of us who must live with the consequences of their actions and deeds; all of which were rooted in such abject, self-serving ignorance. I am so weary of Boomers and their nonsense I want to scream.

  3. I am a baby-boomer, born in 1951, and for over a decade, observing what my millennial neighbors and students in Brooklyn and other places have to go to, I’ve been saying for years that my generation had it incredibly easy compared to the millennials. I’ve been posting my diary entries to Thought Catalog for five years — they cover me at 18 in 1969 and the recent posts are me at 31 in early 1983.

    I wanted to be a fiction writer. I got into an MFA program without even thinking about it; they took virtually every literate person who applied. I easily got my short stories published in little magazines. I easily got publicity in New York and Florida newspapers and national magazines, radio, TV. I moved to Florida in 1981 and almost immediately got a $3000 state arts council grant: one out of three people who applied got one. The competition was not as fierce: I got into the MacDowell Colony and other artists’ colonies. After five years of being an adjunct, I got a full-time community college job.

    I also got unemployment insurance easily. Going to the doctor when I got sick cost $5 (maybe $35 in today’s dollars). Medicine was cheap. Dentists seemed expensive but really weren’t, compared to today. Inflation was high, but I kept getting salary increases. And when inflation was 18%, my 18% interest on credit cards was essentially an interest-free loan.

    I’m not bragging. I am and was a mediocre writer, teacher, and later lawyer. You didn’t have to be really good or a star as a baby boomer and you could be quite successful.

    My friend Tao Lin coined the term about a decade ago: “We are the fucked generation.” The millennials are the fucked generation. Why aren’t they out in the streets rioting? They are, if anything, not entitled *enough*.

    Thanks for your article and your other work. If this were 35 years ago, everyone in the U.S. would know you..

  4. P.S. Oh, I forgot the most important perk of being a baby boomer I had: I went to Brooklyn College for four years without paying tuition! No one paid tuition at City University of New York in those days. We paid a $53 “general fee” ($24 in summers). My parents were pretty well-off — not too many people in Brooklyn lived in houses with swimming pools like we did — and I went to college with friends who lived in the projects. In the end, we all had no debt.

    Later I got two masters degrees for $1800 in tuition each, and law school at the University of Florida was $2500 a year. (I was lucky enough to get a scholarship that covered it all.)

    As someone who’s spent his working life since 1975 in higher education, from community colleges to art schools to private universities to law schools, I can’t say enough of how this cheap tuition and lack of student loans gave the baby boomers such an advantage over Gen Xers, millennials, and today’s post-millennial first-year college students who I currently work with.