Today is a great time to be on The Atlantic if you want to better understand my generation, because the site features an article full of statistics about 27 year olds. Specifically, data on educational goals and attainment, and how these correlate to our rates of student loans, indebtedness, home ownership, marriage, and children. For anyone who has had the impression that U.S. Millennials are a monolithic group, these stats should serve as a reminder that the answer to “how we are doing” is largely linked to how far we’ve gone in school (as well as our race, ethnicity, and parents’ socioeconomic class, not to mention our region, although these points seem to be outside the scope of the article).
These differences aside, what does unite us is financial stress, with 80% reporting their “finances are at least somewhat stressful.” Indeed, this would appear to reflect the reality I’ve observed anecdotally. Everyone 18 – 32 seems to have a second job just to get by (clearly I do not hang much with the uber-wealthy set). University administrators work in retail, elementary teachers as part-time designers of knitting templates. I know social media entrepreneurs who are moonlighting as event planners, office workers doubling as tutors, and scores who are “volunteering” a third shift as unpaid interns in their desired field. Add to this the ones who are living with their parents and in-laws, or whose parents and in-laws are paying their mortgage, and it is easy to see why some critics have declared that we have failed to launch.
Across much of the U.S., adulthood is equated with living a financially and physically independent life, in an single-family dwelling, often with one’s own car, raising one’s own children, and being on one’s own clearly-defined, incrementally successful “career path.” Anything less risks being labelled a failure.
A cultural perspective
It is in this harsh light of failure that we Millennials are often critiqued. Yet, outside of economic forces and generational differences, we remain motivated by very similar values as our parents and grandparents. Below, I look at how our key values of achievement, destiny, risk-taking, hard work, and time-orientation are shaping our adult lives.
First, achievement. Like other mainstream Americans, those in my age group are intensely motivated by a desire to achieve. Indeed, we always thought we would! Not because – as some have suggested – we received too many ribbons for participation, but because the eldest of us saw success as the norm. I was in second grade when the Berlin Wall came down, and in high school during the tech boom of the Clinton years. During those heady times, the thinking went that the only way life could go was up. Provided we worked hard, we expected to lead lives at least as stable as our parents.
Yet, two wars and two recessions later, we are faced with the reality that many of us simply cannot expect to achieve the American Dream as it has come to be defined. Does this mean our lives are doomed to be abject failures? Quite the contrary: I see instead that we are declaring our individual right to define what a good life entails. By redefining success in terms that are both inspiring and attainable, we situate ourselves within the possibility of achieving.
Mainstream Americans are not a fatalistic group. Good or bad luck might strike us on any given day, but the course of our life is largely up to us to determine through our mindset and actions. Indeed, our outrage at inequality is an outgrowth of our belief that life should be fair; it should be possible to determine our own fate through effort. Even if we can’t do this by getting a well-paying job, we are finding quite a lot of room to create lives of meaning outside the old paradigm. People my age are joining the Peace Corps, backpacking and volunteering abroad, setting up cottage industries of canned goods at farmers’ markets and crafts on Etsy, getting advanced degrees, and taking MOOC courses, just because.
Perhaps this is what concerns older generations the most: That we have started to identify with alternative paths to happiness. If we can be content in urban apartments with Ikea furniture and public transportation, or with part-time jobs that allow us to make a positive impact on our communities and offer time for travel, or are willing to forgo starting a family in order to obtain more education, it shakes the foundation upon which earlier generations are built.
To collectively live life off the beaten path requires something that we in the U.S. still have in droves: A general lack of risk aversion. Friends have moved across the country and to other countries not because they necessarily wanted to, but because that’s where a job took them. They have thrown caution to the wind and moved to the countryside where they can homestead and work remotely as brand consultants, have started their own distilleries and macrobiotic consulting outfits, or have walked away from their mortgages to put their families in safer neighborhoods. We are returning to school and grad school, knowing that the price is high and that there won’t necessarily be an immediate financial reward.
This isn’t because we are crazy and can’t do a cost-benefit analysis, but because the rewards of taking the risk appear higher than the consequences of sitting on our hands, simply waiting for life to improve. Plus, in our action-oriented culture, doing something feels better than doing nothing. By taking a risk, we feel like we are moving forward, feel in control of our destiny, and feel like we are already getting closer to accomplishing something.
Plenty people have written about how the Protestant work ethic of the country’s founding informs our psyche today, but outsiders may not realize the extent to which it is seen as the greatest determiner of a person’s character. Because it is the one thing that an individual can absolutely control, it has been distilled into a kind of magic potion that we all drink as its promise is empowering. Of course, when we fail, we often blame ourselves for not working hard enough, and when our friends struggle, we try to help them see their lack of productivity rather than commiserate that, yeah, life is hard sometimes. But, regardless of how you feel about our work value, it clearly is essential to the above values. Without work – understood as a kind of deliberate, consistent, goal-oriented action – there is no foundation to support all of that risk-taking, destiny-shaping, and all-important achievement. We start second businesses, take on additional academic coursework, and do volunteer internships, coaching, mentoring, and leadership because we must.
By now, it should be clear that, far from being lazy and unmotivated, Millennials are in fact scurrying in all directions, desperate to carve out a niche and a life for ourselves. This scurrying takes place under the pressure of another value, which is time. We are all aware that our young adult clocks are ticking. Everyone has had a quarter-life crisis, that awful stretch between 26 and 30 where you evaluate your life and – seeing that you are working two part-time jobs and living with your parents, or trying to finish school while you raise a child, or attempting to pay down student loans which did not lead to a career – feel you’ve come up short and gone horribly wrong somewhere. Because we can always reshape our lives by our vision and work, we redouble our efforts in the hope that something we do will propel us out of the doldrums before we hit 40. And yet, as time marches one, we really are becoming adults, status symbols or not.
To truly understand today’s Millennial adults, it helps to start with our values, which are in line with those of earlier generations. Although our decisions are different, they are rooted in our deepest beliefs about what it means to be alive, and what it means to make a life. If you can fault us for anything, it is our sheer determination that our lives should have meaning, with our without social mobility. And what you can praise us on, even if selfies and social media annoy you, are our resilience, optimism, and ability to keep reinventing ourselves. One way or another, we keep going. When our enthusiasm, conflict aversion, and fear of mistakes aggravate you, try stepping into our shoes for a moment and ask yourself how you would live if you were young today.
With that in mind, I thought I would share a music video that illustrates the ways in which people ages 18-32 are trying to carve out a little bit of magic in life for themselves.
The Killers: “Shot at the Night”
While it can be criticized for, say, mostly featuring white actors, and for not really evaluating the power distance between the young man who has money and the young woman working as a maid, it nonetheless captures the yearning that many Millennials have for just one moment of magic, one shot for being special, one shot to have our turn.