Millennials are frustrated. We feel like society lied to us. Throughout grade school and high school, the authority figures told us to get good grades, go to college and graduate with a degree, any degree, and they would have a great job waiting for us on the other side. The road would present difficulties, but this straight, simple path would take us to the Promised Land, our small corner of the middle class and the so-called “American Dream.” We had no reason to distrust our authority figures, our teachers, parents, and politicians. We grew up in the nineties. We saw prosperity all around us. The internet provided new and exciting opportunities and the economy prospered. So we diligently followed the path.
The first crack in the fantasy came when we started applying to universities and noticed the cost. Our parents had no idea how much had changed since they went to college thirty years prior. I’ve seen one of my dad’s tuition receipts. An entire quarter cost somewhere in the mid-hundreds. You can’t even cover the hidden fees with that cost anymore. Granted, they made less money then, but the cost of higher education has risen by leaps and bounds compared to the rise in inflation over the last three decades. My dad paid for college by working as a stockboy for K-Mart in the late-seventies. Now a retail clerk’s salary barely covers books. The GI Bill created a populist movement among higher education in the mid-twentieth century, creating access to universities that previously catered only to he wealthy. These soldiers expanded the middle class and lowered the cost of education for everybody. The elite have spent my lifetime raising the cost of education back to pre-WWII levels and reclaiming a dominance of knowledge for only the upper class. They can either force people out of educational opportunities or push the middle class so far into debt that they become enslaved to their student loans.
Still, millennials persisted in following the path. So education costs a little bit more than it once did; we can still make up the difference on the other side when we get to our stable middle class job, right? We join the Army National Guard and get stuck in some godforsaken desert for a year or we take out an ungodly amount of student loans. The promise we received makes it worth all that. But somewhere along the line, the market betrayed us. Just as we start our first post-college jobs, just as we prepare to graduate college, graduate high school, the authority figures who promised us work began to close the door on us. We got to the end of our path and realized that someone with ten pots already had stolen the pot of gold at the end of our rainbow, too. Every good job now required a minimum of two to three years experience, but no one would give us an opportunity to earn that experience. So we took our college degrees to low wage, hourly jobs as Starbucks baristas, overnight retail clerks, temporary cubicle fillers, and carpenter’s helpers. It has made us a little bitter.
To add insult to injury, the Baby Boomers have insisted on calling us lazy and selfish. Who has worked harder? They had jobs waiting for them after college starting at $47,000 a year (adjusted for inflation). They came out debt free and bought their first homes before they turned thirty. They relished in the stability of a career that would support them for twenty years or more. They never had to fear a corporation would discard them as soon as they outlived their usefulness. They never had to ask someone’s food order while a master’s degree sat tucked in a drawer in their dinky one-bedroom apartment. They never suffered the indignity of working fifty hours a week at an unpaid internship just to get their foot in the door with some lousy entry-level position. And selfish? They created and fed this corporate monster of greed that crushes our economy and places more and more money and power in the hands of a select American oligarchy. Our parents invented “Keeping up with the Joneses.”
I wish I could go back ten years to my twenty-year-old self and offer some hard learned advice. First, pick at least one practical major. I studied psychology and history as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech. After abandoning the more sensible Building Construction major because my idealist self disliked the business aspects, I decided that if I simply followed my passions, I would land on my feet no matter what I studied. I still bought the fantasy. When the economy collapsed right before I graduated in 2009, I chose to hide out in grad school and hope for a quick recovery. I had escaped my bachelor’s degree debt free thanks to my military service, but I couldn’t pull off the same trick in grad school. I would have to gamble $25,000 against my future. I still didn’t learn my lesson. I started in sociology before finally achieving my Master’s Degree in English from VCU in 2013. I am now a well-rounded and talented asset of no interest to any employer. In a strong economy, a company might take a chance on me because of my high upside. I have proven that I can learn any subject and succeed in relative short order and I have a clear working understanding of people. In this poor economy, I have no marketable expertise to give a hiring agent immediate impact. When companies struggle to survive, they have no resources to waste on a project like me. They prefer the apparent sure thing.
I think of the many turning points in my past where some pre-cognition could have forced a better choice. My interests and talents in artistic, realistic, and investigative actions make me uniquely suited for architecture. If I had entered Tech as an architecture major instead of building construction, I would have avoided the business aspects and stuck with it. Architects have relatively subpar prospects right now, but at least I would have a clear plan of attack and confidence in my abilities. If my younger self remained determined to study history, he could have at least paired that major with something more down to earth like journalism or marketing. Even taking a stab at another bachelor’s degree would have made more sense than doubling down on liberal arts with a useless and expensive master’s degree. The experience and networking gained from a marketing internship or working on the school paper would have made the cost more worthwhile. Now, at thirty with a family to support, I have neither the time nor funds to make up for those poor choices. I don’t get a third chance at the educational roulette wheel.
Speaking of networking, I would impress upon my younger self its vital importance. “It’s all who you know” became cliche for a reason. No one gets a good job anymore without networking. I even found my current job as a carpenter’s helper through an alumni networking event. It seems you can’t even work in construction any more without knowing the right person. You may find hundreds of job listings online, but you have to understand the nature of those listings. Job announcements only make it online after they have failed to secure a worthy candidate through the typical networking channels. If a job makes it to public posting, it’s either such a poor position with terrible pay and a dreadful work environment that no one feels clean offering it to a friend, or it requires such a level of experience and expertise that the young millennial stands no chance. Even if the rare quality job offering does make it to the public forum, the competition remains fierce. Dozens, likely hundreds, of qualified professionals have all seen that posting. It becomes incredibly difficult to get noticed. The countless rejections drain the life from you until you become the bitter shell of your former job candidate self. To gain access to the unseen half of the job market, the quality jobs with better competitive odds, you have to know the right people that will help you put your foot in the door. Life remains unfair and inefficient. I have to try to find a way to make those injustices work for me.
I will always believe that true success comes as a function of talent, hard work, and luck. I know I have talent. I have succeeded at every job I undertook. I can always rely on my sharp mind and a touch of charm. I have a strong work ethic. My roots go back to Midwest steel mills. I always take pride in what I do and my work ethic has only hardened since the birth of my daughter two months ago. It just feels like luck remains in short supply for most millennials. We try to put ourselves in good positions but do we really stand a chance? Tomorrow morning, I will rise at 6:15 AM, I will work hard, and I will keep an eye out for opportunities, but I will fight the despair that always seems to lurk just below the surface.