Millennials will be okay
Things look bad now, but Millennials possess traits that makes them better equipped to have a happier life than previous generations.
“Twenty-eight is the new 21,” says Jeff Miller, a 28-year-old Chicagoan who, just two years ago, was sleeping on his brother’s floor while he searched for a job. He’s quoting “some comic, I can’t remember her name. I think she was joking about going out drinking, but I do kind of feel like where our parents were at 21, we are at 28.” Miller graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2007, right when the economy started to tank. He works at a local daily deal site. He lives in Roscoe Village with a roommate, but it’s only recently that he has started to feel like his apartment here is home, rather than his parents’ place back in Ohio*.
[* My mom is 62. “Don’t you want grandkids?” her friends ask. She laughs. “Taking care of my kids is enough work!” At 26, I’m finally reaching the point Miller is at—my Chicago apartment is increasingly more home than “home”—and I’m paying my own bills (mostly; I won’t say no to a Target run when my parents visit), but my mom is my chief emotional support. We talk on the phone every day, and I can’t imagine it any other way.]
After graduating, Miller followed in the footsteps of a few older friends, deferring full-time employment to first work at a summer camp in Maine, then on a trail maintenance crew in Arizona. In 2008, he joined AmeriCorps, traveling the country for a year to build houses and clean up high schools. He assumed he’d find a job in his field—electronic media and journalism—when he finished. “I wasn’t too worried about the job situation [when I joined AmeriCorps],” he says. “It was more like afterward, when I realized how hard it was to find a job. Everyone I did AmeriCorps with pretty much either did it again for another year or went back home to figure out what’s next.” At 25, he found himself back in his high-school bedroom.
For me, moving back home in my twenties was never a thought. My father was an officer in the Marine Corps and served in the Korean War. My mom came from a working-class Chicago family. “Handle it!” was our houseld mantra; they expected my elder three siblings and me to take care of ourselves. But Millennials are a generation defined by helicopter parents—hovering moms and dads who encouraged their kids to follow any dream, says Ron Alsop, author of 2008’s The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace.
“The most overriding trait [of Millennials] is their great expectations. They’ve been used to achieving a lot and getting rewarded,” Alsop says. “I think that is why this recession and weak job market has been especially painful for them. They expected that if they did the right thing, went to college, they would get the payoff of a good job, and that hasn’t happened for many of them. Their expectations have been really crushed*.”
[* Helicopter parenting is a nice buzzword, but so-called helicopter parents are also encouraging their kids to work hard—make time to join that extra club in high school, take that internship on top of a full course load. I’d like to think our doggedness resulting from these packed schedules will help in the long run, even as our expectations get as smashed as a 14-year-old with a bottle of Malibu.]
Yet, Miller stands strongly behind his time in AmeriCorps. (“I try to convince everyone I know to do it.”) And, despite career setbacks, Alsop says that having those years of public-service work to look back on may make Millennials happier in the long run than Gen Xers, many of whom felt their “badge of achievement” was getting a good job in the (often-unfulfilling) private sector. “I think young people today view working for some organization that might not pay much [but is] doing something with a social purpose as very rewarding,” he says. “And you can get a lot of good experience [in public service], whether it’s managing people or just learning what it takes to run any organization.”
Today, Miller works in customer service. It’s not where he imagined he’d be working when he graduated, but he feels fortunate to have a steady, decent paycheck. Others in his generation aren’t so lucky.