anger and gratitude from a member of “generation screwed”

I read an article this morning that said nothing fundamentally new, but yet lit me up with recognition and appreciation for the way it encapsulated my reality. This is the larger context in which I am living and writing:

So what are millennials known for, so far? Well, to start with the obvious, we’re fucked financially. Anecdotes abound of millennials slaving away as unpaid interns and underpaid assistants, or slacking off as overqualified retail reps and baristas.“Generation Screwed,” Joel Kotkin called us in a thoroughly depressing July 2012 Newsweek feature that laid out the various headwinds holding us back: staggering levels of student debt (at least $25,000 on average, according to the latest reports); a 13.1 percent unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds, compared to 7.9 percent nationally; and “a mountain of boomer- and senior-incurred debt … a toxic legacy handed over to offspring who will have to pay it off in at least three ways: through higher taxes, less infrastructure and social spending, and, fatefully, the prospect of painfully slow growth for the foreseeable future.”

….

But what’s clear now — and maybe wasn’t when the Gen Y “failure to launch” theme first emerged — is that millennials’ seemingly aimless, noncommittal approach to life doesn’t necessarily signify laziness or apathy or an inability to take anything seriously. We’re not a slacker generation, nor are we politically naïve: We were born into the fast-paced optimism of the money-happy ’80s and ’90s, only to come of age as a drawn-out, indefensible war and crippling financial crisis exposed our leaders as self-serving, untrustworthy fuckups. In this world they’ve left us with, we’re not sharing shabby apartments and living on coffee-shop tips out of some blithe desire to experiment. Experimentation is when you’re 15 and you skip history class to get high, knowing how little this forbidden risk-taking really matters for your future, provided it recurs just infrequently enough to allow you to achieve everything you’re told you’re capable of. What we’re experiencing now isn’t rebellion, it’s reality — just not the reality we thought we’d be rewarded with for playing by the rules.

Millenial medium chill, grist.org

(I encourage you to read the whole piece, it’s all good)

“We”–my generation–are choosing different ways of living because we have to, but it isn’t all bad. Yes, I wish I had more financial security and that we had a better safety net for at least essentials like health care. Yes, I wish political conditions in my country and the world weren’t so fucking miserable.

But I’m also part of amazing communities that I value immensely. I’m focusing on paying my bills for essentials (+ a smartphone and a few other luxuries that make navigating and connecting in my world easier), building relationships, and experiencing life fully. I’m investing in my own health and skills and social support system and trusting that the rest will work itself out in the end.

I will probably never own a home like the one I grew up in. I may very well be thirty before I own my first car or residence, if I ever do. At the very least, I certainly won’t follow a becoming-a-grownup timeline anything like that of my parents; at my age, my mother was pregnant with me and living in and renovating the [old and always in need of more work, but also large and beautiful waterfront] house I spent the first fourteen years of my life in.

I do not mean to suggest that my parents ‘had it easy’. They had debt, they worked their asses off for long hours, they struggled. What I am saying is that their struggles and my struggles are fundamentally different struggles, because we made different life choices, yes, but mostly because we came of age in profoundly different times.

Just as my parents have had to come to terms with the cruel reality that it is simply not possible anymore for most middle class families to fully pay their kids’ way through undergrad (I have four younger siblings still at various stages in their high school/college educations), I have had to come to terms with the reality that the landscape of opportunities in front of me as a young adult are wildly different from what I was prepared for and told to expect. In many ways, this sucks. This hurts. There is real disappointment and loss here; there is something to be angry about and to mourn.

But at the same time, I and many, many others like me are finding that there can be profound benefits to letting go of many of the ideas of success we grew up with. Our lives will be different than we expected, but let’s be honest: the expectations of children about the realities of adulthood are always unrealistic, even without the intervention of profound social/cultural/political/economic change. Becoming a real adult has always required something of a reckoning with reality.

The “new” realization here, in my eyes, is that I now see that facing-of-reality as the only prerequisite for ‘adulthood’. There is nothing you must accomplish or acquire in order to be a grownup. You don’t need a “real” job, a “career”, a five-year-plan, a house, a car, a committed monogamous relationship, children, a retirement account, x-amount in savings, health insurance, complete financial independence from the people who raised you. You don’t need to have it “all figured out”. Being an adult is about one thing: taking personal responsibility for your own life and choices. It’s about realizing that, ultimately, you have define your own goals and find your own route to happiness/fulfillment.

I’m not writing any of this to declare superiority over all people who are conventionally successful. Plenty of those people thoughtfully chose their goals, worked their asses off, and genuinely are fulfilled by their lives, and that’s awesome for them.

I’m writing this to celebrate the resilience of those of us who are not where we thought we’d be on the career ladder or some checklist of adulthood… and yet are not counting ourselves as failures. I’m writing to recognize that the environment we came of age in will shape us forever… but not only in the profoundly depressing ways we’ve read so much about. We will also change society, create new definitions of success and new ways to live. We will struggle and experiment often because we have no other choice… but beautiful things will come out of that experimentation nonetheless.

I have my anger and my bitterness about the greedy lying fuckers and the mountains of human stupidity and incompetence that got us here. And I’m not planning on letting go of that, because I think that anger is essential in motivating me to advocate for meaningful positive change.

But angry and bitter is not all that I am. It is hard some days to hold on to this, but I am hopeful. I am optimistic. I am excited about things that I never imagined would be part of my life at twenty-four. I don’t have a house or even a particularly healthy savings account, but every week I gather with an assortment of funny, brilliant, loving, like-minded nerds to play board games, go on hikes, see geeky movies, and generally build a community. I keep in frequent meaningful contact with roughly a dozen close friends from my past who live in other states, and I share ideas and funny cat videos with a few hundred friendly acquaintances.

I have my anxieties about my future and my daily stresses… but I’m happy. And I believe (on my better days, anyways), that we millennials (I know, I hate the name too) may have gotten screwed in some ways, but we’re far from doomed. In fact, in a twisted sort of way, we are blessed by the fact that we have been forced to rethink everything. If the crises that I watched unfold through my teens and early adulthood have taught me anything, it is that our world could really use some rethinking.

9 thoughts on “anger and gratitude from a member of “generation screwed”

  1. Love this, Keely! (I think I start every comment with that phrase, lol)

    I do think you’re right about the circumstances of our coming-of-age changing us all for the better. I see a lot more cooking at home, DIY projects, and general self-reliance happening in the people our age, and hopefully that stuff continues to follow us through our lives (rather than us just getting older and buying into a consumer-heavy existence when we’re older and can afford it).

    There’s a profound difference between the old people who grew up in the Depression, and people who grew up in the post-war prosperity. In the far distant future, we may be the hardened, do-it-yourselfers who can jerry-rig anything with paper clips and duct tape (much like my beloved, late grandfather, who grew up in the Depression and duct taped the headlights into his old van, which I later inherited…).

    My boyfriend in particular uses the anger he feels from this situation to motivate him to succeed and move forward. I need to channel some of my frustration into that as well.

    🙂

    1. Channelling the frustration is hard when you’re still coping with the emotional backlash from various disappointments, but I think it can be a powerful thing when you’re ready.

      I’m still re-grouping and exploring and planning right now, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up doing something risky and different and very different than anything I could have imagined seven years ago when I graduated high school. And I’m scared as shit, and it may not work out… but I’ll probably try because, well, I don’t have that much to lose. Worst case, I’ll find myself back where I am now in a year or two… with a moderate amount of debt and considering random retail jobs just to pay the bills. There are worse things, really.

      1. That is fabulous and, I think, one of the definitions of terrifyingly awesome. Best of luck to you.

  2. Usually all I do on blogs is lurk, but I have to delurk to make a comment about this.

    This description of our generation is probably the most concisely accurate thing I’ve ever seen. With issues like the Occupy movement defining us to all onlookers, we stand to be accused of being politically active with a strong voice, or of being lazy brats who’d rather stand in the street demanding that jobs be handed to us than going out and working hard for them ourselves. This issue has clear sides that make it easy for anyone watching the news to take a stance, and that’s why it has come to define us so much, I think.

    As I was reading your post and your thoughts on how we will have to learn to create our own success, it got me thinking about the indie market. Indie artists of all sorts are starting to get so much recognition in a lot of different parts of today’s media (music, writing, gaming development, etc.), which is exciting for those of us who are coming into a job market that’s falling apart, because it gives any artist chance to actually make our own success from the ground up if we know how to market successfully enough. It seems like slowly, the confidence in mainstream media is fading in a way similar to how we learned not to trust the other promises of success from the previous generation.

    I’m not sure if I wrote any of that in a way that was easy to read. Like I said, normally all I do is lurk, so I might not be conversational enough to keep that from looking like just a wall of text. Hopefully it came out okay.

    p.s. I found you via a link you left in the comments over at the Awkward Army, in case it’s weird to see some random newbie here! I’ve been following ever since then.

    1. No weirdness from being a newbie… most people around here still are, I’ve only been blogging regularly since the post of mine Captain Awkward linked back in February, and that post has been slowly circling the internet ever since, so I have a steady trickle of new commenters. 🙂

      The connection you make to the indie market is interesting, and had been something I thought about a bit… finding new ways to fund projects that are not reliant on big corporations seems to be one thing a lot of us are doing.

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