I gotta admit, I was a little spellbound when I first read Talia Jane’s open letter to the CEO of Yelp, the company she worked for then (she was fired shortly after posting her story). I felt some cringe on her behalf as I made my way through the piece. Just looking back at the things I wrote when I was 25, I’m guessing I’m not alone in it feeling a little too familiar.
But this isn’t about bashing Jane’s post. Plenty have already done so, including one on Business Insider I’ve seen repeatedly.
Instead, I’ll try to not be the guy that yells about kids on his lawn for a few minutes.
Playing the Generational Card
I hate generational stereotypes and the biggest problem with Jane’s diatribe is that it plays right into the hands of people who love to hate on millennials as a whole. Entitlement is a tricky word but that’s exactly what this smells like. Moving to one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. for a job that doesn’t pay much is a recipe for disaster. Paying 80 percent of your income towards housing is not sustainable and should’ve been a red flag to any of the friends or family members in Jane’s life. A $20 co-pay is a luxury plenty of people don’t have, either.
A series of bad choices, published for all to see online, goes viral and like magic, old and young people alike start rattling off all that’s wrong about kids these days.
Listen, assholes: You made mistakes when you were young. So did I. We still make mistakes. And while this series of mistakes had a train wreck appeal and a predictable ending, let’s not pretend your generation of dead-end jobs and multiple divorces saw everything coming, either.
You didn’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps
That widely shared post I mentioned responding to Jane? Written by nearly 30-year-old Stefanie Williams, it shares a viewpoint that isn’t uncommon: Work harder, complain less.
Shit, I get it. That’s how I was raised, too. But it’s such a belittling piece, it’ll fall on deaf ears to those who could probably use an extra dose of suck it up.
First of all, many people don’t have the opportunity to live with parents while working low wage jobs like Williams did. Many of us don’t have family friends who will take pity on us and give us a job when we’re down on our luck. I guess if you don’t have that, you can always make your own luck, which is its own brand of bullshit made by people with money, power and opportunity already.
Williams’ tale of putting pride aside and working a job she initially didn’t want was less a lesson in work ethic and more a demonstration of the power of privilege. I worked shitty jobs over holidays and weekends, but let’s pretend that finding even a job you hate that’s in the right location that pays the bills isn’t an entitlement on its own.
Her condescending diss piece, made for an internet audience that gobbles this shit up like the lamest east coast/west coast rap war ever, was at least as offensive as the original.
Unfortunately, the whole thing plays out more like two poorly written fictional personas: the entitled princess who can’t understand why her bad career choices aren’t working for her and the wise-beyond-her-years character who simply parrots the same things her grandparents say about success but in a much more condescending, grating way.
Congrats for making me hate both sides of this argument.
I learned it from you
Of course, while many baby boomers cheer Jane’s professional demise from the sideline as a hard lesson they hope others will learn from, they can ignore the issues that have caused situations like Jane’s to be more common than just slacker, entitled kids getting their comeuppance. In fact, it’s snarled a lot of good kids who do work hard and find it difficult to move up without lucky breaks or knowing someone in high places. Specifically, these long-term issues have hurt young people’s ability to move up in the world:
- A college degree is no longer a ticket to success: I’ve worked with a lot of older people with liberal arts degrees who are doing work significantly outside of the scope of their degree. Millennials were sold a bill of goods about college education that is a lot less certain today. There was a time when any degree was better than none and many parents and advisors assumed that would continue to be the case. Now, a horde of English and History graduates that used to get jobs in the 70s and 80s simply languish in today’s job market. When college was a few thousand dollars, that’s less of an issue but now, it’s much different.
- Unaffordable education: When I started repaying my student loans in 2004, I had $12,000 in debt thanks mainly to the generosity of parents who floated me money for when finances got tight and my ability to work close to full-time at a place where I nearly set my own schedule. A student starting today at the same state university I attended, a little more than a decade later, will be that much in debt after their first year if they only financed tuition. Unless something major happens, I don’t think college tuition is going to decrease. Something will have to give. We can’t keep encouraging 18-year-olds to make house-sized debt gambles on careers.
- Affordable housing: In many coastal U.S. cities, housing is insane. In my hometown, a bedroom community for Portland, rents rose the fastest in the nation last summer. White collar workers making six figures want baristas, servers, and retail workers next to their workplaces in high-rent high rises but they don’t seem to want to pay to either subsidize housing for them or pay the prices necessary to offer a livable wage for the area. Many younger workers and college grads are abandoning cities to find work away from the coast, if they can afford the move in the first place.
- Lack of truly entry-level career opportunities: During every recession, training is one of the first departments to get cut to the bone and the last to get an increase in funding. While companies complain about the lack of talent, they are unwilling to put skin in the game to get those who are willing but may be lacking in certain skills up to speed. Going from the mailroom to the CEO requires not just hard work from the employee but also investment and risk from the company.
Of course, all of these hit minorities and women harder than people like me. It’s not a good situation but it’s one that was created by all of us.
It’s not about the trophy anymore
When you look at the odds young people face, you can see why they support someone like Bernie Sanders. And look, he’s not my cup of tea but it seems like young people are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I think it’s fair to look for relief, especially if it feels like you got a significantly worse deal than your parents did — which you did, because you could get a better job with a free high school diploma then than you can with many college degrees now by nearly every measure.
This whole idea of a “trophy for every kid” is what doomed an entire generation is just a load of hot garbage and every person with an ounce of honesty has to admit that argument has played itself out.
Entitlement is ripe in America. It has no age. When I see people complaining that taxes are still too high, I see entitlement. I beg these people to go back to the tax rates their parents paid. You didn’t walk uphill to school in the snow. You weren’t better off because you didn’t wear seat belts or helmets — you were lucky you didn’t die, dumbass.
If we’re honest, nothing has truly doomed millennials. There are many successful people under 35 years old. They have good jobs and kids. I’m one of them. I’ve worked with a lot of them. Many are my friends who are forging ahead with incredible success.
But I think we underestimate how much the deck is stacked against them compared to previous generations, even compared to what older millennials like myself faced.
Talia Jane’s situation is a unique one born of a tough situation for anyone her age, ignorance, and yes, we can all acknowledge, incredibly poor decision-making. Hardships and lessons like this are part of growing up. Did she handle it great? No, but I have an entire journal of shit I wrote when I thought I was super brilliant and had it all figured out at 23 (I didn’t). The only decision I made differently was to keep it all private.
But her situation is also becoming less unique. Not because millennials always make bad career choices but because even the best, most assured and smart career strategy today carries with it a much more significant risk of failure.
I want my kid to be successful and I think most people want millennials, including Jane, to find success. But the path forward for them is going to be different from yours and even mine. Calling her to the carpet for the predictable failings that a lot of 25-year-olds face (but don’t necessarily publicize) is your right.
For a lot of people who have taken on second jobs, moved in with roommates, sold every last thing they could, deferred massive student loan debt and still not squeeze by without the help of friends, family, and even kind strangers — don’t be surprised if they find something in Jane’s story that resonates more with their personal struggles than some tired appeal to just suck it up and work harder.
Sometimes, it’s not just the kids’ fault. We don’t have to coddle her mistakes while still admitting that it’s kind of a screwed up world out there for anyone looking to forge a living as a young adult.