I’m part of a lost generation, so despite all of the other things that I’d rather write about I’ve decided to sit down and write about being a fucking Millennial.
I’m ashamed already. Please, don’t rub it in.
Why write this now? Maybe it’s because I really AM that self-absorbed (but isn’t that some kind of birthright from being raised up in the 90’s?). Maybe it’s because I’m just upset and have been coddled and gold-starred enough to think that my feelings matter and should be expressed.
To be honest, I don’t want to contribute to the same shit that we hear all the time about 20-somethings having no clue about anything or the embarrassment of living a parent-dependent, 30-year-old adolescence. Neither is the motivation here to straighten out all of the contradictory things people say about us Millennials; that we’re altruistic yet severely narcissistic, that we’re the most educated generation to date yet we say our clothes are what set us apart from other generations.
The real reason I decided to write about my generational existence is because Aziz Ansari gets me, a CBS article rubbed me the wrong way, and lately I’ve been living as a severely underemployed,* single Millennial lady with a dual-title PhD. In other words, I embody a classic case of Millennial Malaise: educated but broke, smart but single, passionate but pretty lost, all in all. And like nearly everyone else my age, I keep asking, “But why?!?! WHY DOES EVERYTHING FEEL SO HARD?!?!”
When Aziz (I’m going with first names here because I want us to be cool like that) started talking about relationships in his “Buried Alive” special I was all, “Oh, damn. He nailed it.” If you haven’t seen it, Aziz describes how straight women reveal their terribly low-standards when asked about what they are looking for in a man: “Clean. And nice.” Personally, I would add, “Has a decent job,” but that may be getting a little too picky, not to mention borderline hypocritical.
Shortly thereafter, and with Aziz’s jokes about low standards in my mind, I came across a CBS news article on how loneliness and the fear of being single may drive people to settle on and stay in bad relationships. While this article wasn’t specifically about Millennials, I couldn’t help but read it as such because, well, isn’t anything a Millennial reads going to be interpreted as being about Millennials? That, and to put it most simply: It’s rough out there in the real world, people, and this could affect our relationships.
We don’t know where we’re going, how we’re getting there, or even if “there” is our old bedroom in our parent’s house. If I can’t be guaranteed a future date with Social Security, retirement, or even a doctor next week because I still can’t afford health insurance, I might as well take a date this week with whomever, amiright? (That is, if we are competent enough to actually schedule one, as Aziz also points out.) So we might suck at being in relationships as much as we suck at dating and life in general, but at least being in a shitty relationship with someone would mean that you wouldn’t be alone as you wade through the rest of the shit about life now and an uncertain future later. I’m serious. Everything seems terrifying.
The strange thing, though, is that the CBS article was based on information from a survey that consisted mostly of women respondents. Moreover, 51% of these mostly women participants actually reported that they didn’t fear being alone or even enjoyed the positive and negative parts of being single. Nevertheless, the article emphasized the feedback from the less than 20% who said they feared a life of “spinsterhood” and dying alone. Almost 1 in 5 in a pool of mostly women were afraid of being single and becoming a spinster to the point that they would stay in bad or unfulfilling relationships.
So wait! Are we or are we not afraid?! Are Millennials, especially Millennial women, actually feeling more empowered than we think? (Whatever. We can’t make sense of what it’s like to be a Millennial, so if you’re the type that needs to experience something in order to understand it and you feel confused, then you’re welcome. We’re full of confusing contradictions.)
On one hand, this article could be re-read against itself as a rather optimistic indication that the majority of women aren’t afraid of being single (a note that CBS bizarrely skimmed over and de-emphasized to make a more depressing point while also failing to acknowledge the gender imbalance in the study). But, on the other hand, if 1 in 5 women are willing to stay in less than good relationships with mediocre partners, that’s a sad statistic for anyone who hopes that all people, and especially women, will feel empowered enough to resist being in dissatisfying relationships altogether.
This points back to something very, very basic that cannot be ignored, which I think can also be related back to the Millennial experience at large.
If we think about relationships as something more than just a place for romance and pay attention to the social, economic, and political contexts that necessarily frame all of our relationships, some Millennial women – and even Millennial men at this point – might stay in non-ideal situations for other reasons that go beyond an overly-simplistic fear of being alone. In short, we might stay out of necessity. Or, put another way, there aren’t really that many other viable options, which means that trying to identify an individual’s motivation and calling it a “fear of being alone” isn’t exactly fair.
Deeper Problems To Many Bad Relationships…Especially for Millennials
The idea that one would stay in a less-than-ideal relationship or situation because there is a dearth of other available options isn’t that hard to grasp. It’s something that feminists and other progressive commentators have noted time and time again for decades. To take an extreme yet common example, a woman might stay in an abusive relationship because (among other things) she is dependent on her partner’s income, benefits, and insurance and can’t support herself or her family on her own. Or, one might tolerate sexual harassment in a “professional” relationship because she fears that raising a stink about it would threaten her own job and reputation. Or, for all of my fellow degreed yet underemployed academic folks, one might continue tirelessly working as an adjunct who lives and dies in poverty because there just aren’t many other career options available.
And that’s the twisted kicker!
Not to equate domestic violence and sexual harassment with adjuncting, but the messed up pattern of you’re-damned-either-way holds in the adjunct situation and captures the Millennial plight rather well: You go to school, get your advanced degrees, rack up student loans along the way, then struggle to find a salaried job because they don’t exist, hundreds of people also need that job, and you aren’t competitive enough thanks to your lack professional experience. Oh, and since you weren’t earning a salary all of those years while you were in school, you’re also out of the savings, retirement, and financial security that you otherwise would and are expected to have by now if you would have only started acting your age.
The theme that runs throughout all of the above situations is that one is caught in a web of different power relations – with others and with institutional structures – and feels powerless to make real changes.
If you don’t have the power, freedom, or option to genuinely choose to live, do, or be differently then you, my friends, are struggling against forces that exceed your inability to cope, your “fear of loneliness,” and even your so-called lack of maturity. You’re dealing with differences in power, privilege, and opportunity. And a lot of that comes from, is related to, and influences who has wealth and money (or a lack thereof).
Now let’s recap the likely causes for Millennial Malaise, the affliction that invites so much criticism against an entire generation of miserable individuals:
THE GREAT RECESSION OF 2008.
Boy, that was easy.
Some people with jobs recently wrote that “since the Great Recession of 2008, [Millennials] have been having a hard time. They are facing one of the worst job markets in decades. They are in debt. Many of them are unemployed. The income gap between old and young Americans is widening.” (<–You may be among the 12 million people who have already seen this, but watch it again anyway. It’s awesomely depressing.)
The foundation to our biggest problem as a generation isn’t that we are emotionally and psychologically inept, that social media has decimated our ability to connect as real humans, or that our over-involved parents enabled us to become entitled, ADHD-ridden over-achievers who expect everything to just be handed to us.
It’s not just that our relationships with one another, our parents, and our partners suck. We have really shitty relationships with unemployment, debt, minimum wage, part-time work, unpaid internships, inflation, and the cost of living.
In other words, our biggest problem is largely one of economic inequality and financial insecurity. Don’t just take my whiny word for it. The economic dimension of what I’m calling ‘Millennial Malaise’ was recently described by another employed writer as “financial melancholy.” She notes that this isn’t just a matter of psychological scars of a generation, but economic scars, as well.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? “Economic scars are a thing?!” I hope they come out with a cocoa butter cream for that soon because I don’t even know how to begin coping with such a concept.
For starters, optimism isn’t worth it.
Each glimmer of hope that announces “We’re Coming Out of the Recession!” doesn’t mean jack for more than 95% of us. If you’ve been tricked into thinking that things are getting better for you, kids, look at the bottom right number of this chart. They’re not. It also doesn’t help that the ultra-wealthy continue to get away with the millions of dollars worth of (legal!) bullshit that got us into this mess in the first place. Neither does it help that the Daily Show – a fake news source, mind you – is the only group to report on it.
Since the money thing isn’t going to be getting better, some people have suggested that Millennials are coping by giving up on making money and seeking out pursuits that offer greater meaning.
Sure, we’re the most volunteer-oriented generation and we’re more open-minded than our racist grandmas (thanks again, Aziz, for such great insight). So in that respect, maybe things are getting better. But if that happens, we’ll be the ones responsible for those changes. And we’ll still be broke.
Older generations can make themselves feel better by blaming our problems on us and calling us lazy, apathetic, narcissistic, immature, entitled, and generally pathetic overall. They can even say, in that very patronizing way, that “there are certain benefits to economic deprivation…By focusing on making a positive difference in the lives of others, rather than on more materialistic markers of success, they are setting themselves up for the meaningful life they yearn to have…”
But the turn to finding meaning over money is a practical (if not the only) approach to coping with the miserable economic times that we’ve been thrown into, so we don’t need to sugar coat it by saying that this is a perk of being a Millennial. That just sounds like something a terrible parent would say to justify their poor parenting as a form of “tough love.”
In the meantime, as and until we become the most adaptable, service-oriented, innovative, and practical generation to date, I think we are completely justified in thinking about ourselves, our lives, our futures, and freaking the fuck out.
Considering that cry-sessions, panic attacks, depression, and bad relationships thrive in such troubled and desperate times, seizing the moment to take a selfie instead makes you look like a damn champion. And making a snarky YouTube video as your apology for sucking so much makes you a certified genius.
Godspeed, Millennials. Godspeed.
I’m a philosophical consultant searching for and making all the meaning one little life can muster. Follow me on Twitter @Cori_Wong and Facebook, subscribe to my YouTube channel, and see pictures of my cat on Instagram. He’ll make you feel better about all of your shitty relationships.
*A week before writing this post, and more than 6 months since my last livable paycheck, I was offered a full-time position. Despite using that time to relocate to a new town, teach at a community college, and start my own philosophical consulting business, I’ve been living on peanuts (as my dad says) – i.e., mostly personal savings and graduation money from my family. The relief of having a job offer come through has been indescribable. It’s also provided a powerful juxtaposition which helped make sense of the past few years of my life that inform this post.