What’s the Matter with Millennials? A Handy Little Guide

For a while there, it felt like it was downright trendy to hate on millennials. Everyone from the media to your grandmother was talking about how millennials aren’t buying houses, they’re buried in debt, they’re delaying marriage and child-rearing. The subtext of all this tut-tutting was like a primal scream from our expectant elders: You’re not adulting the right way!!!!

But what if we took a step back and asked, what’s going on here? 

Anne Helen Petersen did just that. Her book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, explores in depth and breadth all the economic and social factors contributing to this generation’s dismal performance as adults.

And uh, if you’re a millennial, it’s downright weird to have a book explain, so thoroughly, so many of the things that have happened to you. It’s like someone revealing the entire production crew behind the movie of your life. 

So, here’s what happened:

Our parents messed some big things up.

Ah, your well-meaning mom and dad. Whether they’re boomers or Gen X-ers, you may want to ignore a lot of their advice. Although they may have some wisdom, they came of age in a system with an entirely different set of parameters. And then they voted for people who enacted policies that took away many of the benefits that helped them reach solid financial ground.

Sure, they had their reasons: Petersen devotes an entire chapter to the cultural, political and economic changes they experienced, and the nerve-wracking conditions that led to how they voted and parented us.

“They helped elect leaders, like President Ronald Reagan, who promised to ‘protect’ the middle class through tax cuts, even though Regan’s policies, once put into practice, worked to defund many of the programs that had allowed the middle class to achieve that status in the first place,” Petersen writes.

And it gets better: “On the state level, they elected lawmakers who passed ‘right to work’ legislation to defang unions, which were increasingly depicted as greedy, corrupt, and destroying American competitiveness on the global market.”

Things our parents benefited from, like affordable higher education, jobs with pension plans to support them in retirement and unions to protect their right to have a life outside of work, don’t exist for the younger generations anymore. It’s no coincidence that wages have been stagnant for 30 years – and if you’re a millennial, that’s most of your life!

TL;DR: Our elders used social systems and support to climb the economic ladder, and then they pulled that ladder up behind them, Petersen explains. Thanks, guys!

The state of work sucks.

As anyone who works for a living knows, the state of work isn’t great. It’s linked to the structure of the economy, Petersen explains, and both have changed dramatically since the 1980s: Not only does the union support and wage growth not exist anymore, but corporations have an entirely different goal now: pleasing investors. I’m so used to this that I didn’t even realize that once upon a time, companies actually aimed for slow, stable growth. Not today: Corporate America now has a single-minded focus on hockey-stick growth and profits, so they’ll do anything to cut costs – and employees are considered an expensive burden (instead of, you know, humans with value).

To lessen that “burden,” many companies increasingly rely on temp workers, because they’re cheaper than full-time employees. I was shocked to learn that over 60% of Google employees are actually just contract workers, and at many large companies, like Apple, the ethos is the same.

Basically, corporations’ obsession with short-term stock gains has led to tenuous and lower-paying work for millennials in the early stages of their careers, when, you know, we’re saddled with more student loan debt than any generation before.

The result of all this is like a math problem that even the non-mathy people like me can understand: increase the cost of living, decrease the value of your wage, add in the enormous upfront cost of college – a requirement to get a salaried job in the first place – and you have an entire generation that is going to struggle to build wealth. That is going to struggle to thrive, despite their obsession with achievement.

Millennials blame themselves.

When I say obsession with achievement, I mean obsession. Petersen takes us through millennials’ teen years and what it’s like being the first generation to conceive of ourselves as “walking college resumes,” who are obsessed with optimizing themselves in order to maximize their chances of success. And who would’ve guessed that the teens who had panic attacks in AP Calc turn into adults who aren’t able to relax. It’s a strange thing that I’ve personally experienced: when I do have down time, I feel I should be optimizing it, by doing some perfect hobby that I show off on Instagram; even better, I should be monetizing it. This part in particular rocked me to my core:

“[T]he burnout condition is more than just an addiction to work. It’s an alienation from the self, and desire. If you subtract your ability to work, who are you? Is there a self left to excavate? Do you know what you like and don’t like when there’s no one there to watch, and no exhaustion to force you to choose the path of least resistance? Do you know how to move without always moving forward?”

When I read that…I had to put the book down for a moment.

Surviving vs. thriving: The crux of millennial disappointment

Listen. Lest you think this is just me and the author bitching, I can assure you that I’m well aware that there is always a tension – in adulthood and life – between what you want to do and what you have to do. Between what you want to do and what you can do. We know the song: You can’t always get what you want. But despite millennials’ obsession with success and self-improvement, despite trying to create an adulthood that looks and feels independent, we’re stuck. We’re the generation most optimized to thrive. But instead, many of us are barely surviving. The cognitive dissonance is crushing.

Because sure, we’re surviving – which in 21st century America means you have food and shelter and a job or two. But thriving is the ability to build the life you want. That usually means first being able to build a career, and wealth. And that’s where the systems have failed us. 

So hey, if you’re a millennial and you’re kinda disappointed with this whole adulthood thing, please know that it’s probably not your fault. But it is still the world that surrounds you. One more thing from this book that I will take with me the rest of my life: in this system, I can’t possibly work enough. I can’t possibly optimize myself enough. The money making machine will never be sated. It is never full. And if I let it, it will eat me alive.

Stopping to breathe, stopping your production, simply existing in this system, will always feel like a transgression. Do it anyway.

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