Disclaimer: These ideas are half-baked. That’s how (in my mind) blogging works. I look forward to a healthy discussion, and I am completely sure that I will rewrite on this topic in the future having learned from y’all and amended some of my points. Flamers gotta flame, and I know that. But try going into this assuming that if something I said sounds off that maybe I just didn’t state it well and give me the opportunity to try again before you decide I’m a horrible human being. I also fully admit that I am writing this from an incredibly privileged I-actually-got-to-go-college white-cisgendered-straight-female East-Coast-American point of view. My peer group, my friends, and the “we” I refer to throughout this article are not many people’s “we.” Writing from experience got me yelled at in philosophy classes and probably will get me yelled at on the internet, too. Just try not to stray into Godwin’s territory.
It has been ten years since I matriculated at Converse College, full of dreams of a career and a love for learning that often got me in too deep with extracurriculars and 18 hour semesters. I went to a fancy private school, and I have the student loans to prove it. I have a top-notch liberal arts degree and graduated an honors student. I went on to get a MA from the University of Georgia and am now working on a PhD at Virginia Tech. I wanted (and still do) to be a college professor. I still don’t think it was a bad goal.
My parents helped when they could, but I have had a job in some capacity since I started college (and even before) in 2003: federal work-study, cashier at Target, adjunct at far too many colleges to name. I have always had a job not because I wanted to – being a full-time student is already a full-time job – but because I have had to. TA stipends are all publicly accessible, so I know I’m not spilling any secrets, but my stipend at UGA for my MA was $10,000 a year, plus full tuition remission, for a 2/1 teaching load. Pros: in theory, one should not have to take out any student loans (and if you add out-of-state tuition to 10 grand, it’s not bad) and would end up with a valuable degree. Cons: the 10 grand was only a 9 month stipend (summers didn’t count) and you didn’t qualify for food stamps. Roommates were a necessity. Second jobs were discouraged by the department but were absolutely necessary.
In any case, I’ve been lucky. I have generally been able to find work when I’ve needed it, and I have been able to teach (and not work retail) since I completed my MA. My one not-academia job between my MA and my PhD was actually (sort of) in my field.
But I do refer to myself as lucky intentionally. I have worked hard. I haven’t done my very best every single day (who does?) but my overall trajectory has been upward. Yet many of my peers have worked just as hard, if not harder, and find themselves so incredibly lost. People with MAs still only able to find part-time work. Incredibly brilliant women from Converse who still only make $10/hr (on at least their 6th job) after seven years on the job market. Friends who have managed to make it, but only by leaving behind what they have studied and finding a job completely outside their field (You studied accounting? How about being a photographer. Journalism? Yeah, why not work at the Apple store. ROTC? Oh, well, you actually got a job in the Army. Good for you). Some are happy. Many are not.
We graduated at the peak of the last bubble. Some of us got lucky and managed to get jobs just prior to the burst. Others are still drowning years later. And yet, we are called entitled. We took out student debt we couldn’t afford. Because we banked on getting jobs we were told our entire lives we would get. So we worked hard and believed what we were told (teachers and parents aren’t supposed to lie, right?). And now, I don’t know of one friend right now that isn’t on loan deferment or income-based-repayment for their loans. Not because they don’t want to pay their loans, but because they can’t.
I was talking with my best friend from undergrad tonight, and so I will admit some of these ideas are hers. But overall they got me thinking. We are told we are the entitled generation. But most of us have caved, crumbled, given up on dreams. We’ve not necessarily accepted our fate of being less secure than our parents’ generation, but we are trying our best to work within the “new normal.”
I now have multiple friends who have resigned themselves to not having children. When I was a kid, we were told (by often… well-meaning(?) adults) that people who chose not to have kids were “yuppies” that “chose not to have children” so they could “travel” or “buy things” or “have a life.” How heteronormatively classist. I’ve come a long way in understanding, I hope.
Now, I have friends who would be brilliant parents electing to stay childless. Not all of them, but many, are making this decision not because they don’t want children, but because they know they aren’t financially stable enough to responsibly bring them into the world. My parents have always told me “you’re never truly ready to have kids.” I’m sure on some level, that’s true. I don’t know that I’ll ever be really ready to be responsible for a thing that can’t even support its own head for months (is it months? Or weeks? I have no idea. Maybe this is why they have parenting classes), but if that time comes, I’ll hunker down and figure it out as best I can, as every parent should.
The difference is that these friends who are now electing childlessness aren’t being paranoid. They truly understand that they can’t afford to have children and raise them responsibly. Hell, many of them cannot even afford retirement plans for themselves, let alone rent without roommates (as married/partnered thirtysomethings). So where are college funds for 2.5 kids, when college is more expensive than ever and you really need a masters for any job of “value” (massive sarcasms/scare quotes here. And let’s not bring up the fact that graduate students cannot get subsidized loans any longer), supposed to come from? These very real issues don’t just “work themselves out on their own.”
I’m not an economist. I have tons of friends (or, at least two) that can claim that title. But I do know that I had friends slightly better off than we were (Enlisted Navy Brat here, y’all) whose parents had way nicer and newer stuff than we did. And bigger, nicer houses, that their parents owned. And looking back, I’m sure most of it was on credit that places like Wells Fargo gave them with limits they could not truly afford. But everything was good, right? The economy was booming, and everyone could have new, shiny things.
My generation is now dealing with the aftermath. The good news is that medicine is getting such that we can have kids later and later. The bad news is even with that, many of my friends who want to still may not be able to.
So what is this rambling rant really all about? I’m not trying to advocate having kids, or buying things you don’t need, or a return to “the way things were.” I’m just sick of daily hearing at least one of my friends lamenting a situation that in many ways is not their fault, which they are made to feel guilty about by some of the very people that got us here. And I’m also not trying to say that our parents and grandparents are terrible people. Most of them had no idea of the big economic picture (and if they did, I would hope would have made different choices).
Here is (finally) my thesis: My friends are not lazy (yeah, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, my generation is not plagued with a do-nothing disease). And we are quickly losing our pie-in-the-sky ideals (high-paying jobs, houses, cars). We are definitely far more pragmatic than we are often given credit. I still drive the 1997 Subaru that I inherited from my parents. I currently have three jobs to make sure I’m not going into (much) consumer debt to survive. I help proof job letters and resumes for my friends whenever I can. I watch my friends list jobs on Facebook from their companies to see if they can help others find a job.
If anything, it is our parents that are still living with certain assumptions. That everyone ends up with a house, and a car (or three), and 2.5 kids. That we make more than $18,000 a year in professional jobs (I’m talking teachers, y’all) ten years out of high school. Why not? They did. And that was in the 80s/90s, when $18,000 went quite a bit farther.
I’m not trying to toot my own horn, and I’m certainly not saying that we Millenials are perfect. But please, stop calling my friends lazy. Stop firing my friends or reducing their hours so you don’t have to give them health insurance. Stop telling them they have to work harder if they really want to do better financially only to nag them about why they haven’t had kids yet. Stop expecting us to own homes when our student loans are $600 a month for loans you co-signed on while telling us we would have no problems paying them off. I know you’re trying to give us advice, but you’re only adding to the emotional burden. Most of us really are doing our best. Please, just stop. You’re only making us feel worse.