A Brief History of the Millennial

Each morning I would arrive at school, say the Pledge of Allegiance (which I had done my entire life and never questioned as bizarre or authoritarian). Sure, I loved living in the United States, but in retrospect it is weird that they asked me to pledge my allegiance every single day.

Then the lessons began. These differ somewhat depending on where a child lived, but Columbus discovered America, George Washington had wooden teeth, some of the states left the country because we told them they couldn’t own people anymore, Nazis were bad (and tried to exterminate the Jews among other groups), and the United States won the Cold War.

In grade school the Gulf War took place on television, but children did not seem to care. It was American soldiers kicking ass in some place of which we had never heard. No threat to us and the US military could handle it just fine.

Our parents worked a long time for one group unless they chose to go work someplace else. Sure, people got fired, but that was because they did something wrong or were bad at their job. Many of my friends lived in the same house most of their childhood, even if the parents divorced. We only had a few new kids move into the neighbourhood and even fewer seemed to move away.

We did our best in school so we could qualify for advanced classes in high school so we could go to the good university so we could get the good job so we could live in the nice house. It was all formulaic and, for me, quite comforting.

Then everything changed.

One morning we watched 3,000 Americans die on live television. Some of my friends were scared for their personal safety that day. I remember not feeling directly threatened (who was going to attack our high school?) but I was stunned that such violence could occur in the United States. In other countries where things had a history of such violence – sure. American violence was isolated. Columbine and the Oklahoma City bombing were the sort of staggering, large-scale events we saw, and even those were rare and newsworthy.

For my part, the Pentagon attack was the one that triggered me. The Trade Centers were tragic, but that “made sense” in a terroristic context. Massive skyscrapers in a public space – and we had already seen a bombing at the Trade Center before. If someone heinous wanted to commit violence in the United States, that “made sense.” How they managed to hit the military nerve centre was another matter altogether. To me that meant, “This is a more deliberate, organised kind of enemy, we fell asleep at the wheel, or both.”

As I finished high school, the entire mood changed. The nation was on edge. Heightened security everywhere. Our military engaged again, both to Afghanistan and back to Iraq. With all the news coverage and personal study of the situations, I did not understand it. Still don’t understand it to be honest.

We still went to college and spent a fortune. I kept things reasonable by doing community college for my first 2+ years and then switching to a four-year university, but that still left me with a five-digit price tag. Most of my friends and siblings fared far worse in that respect.

I also had some personal issues and sought a way to distract myself from them, so when I learned at 14 that I was eligible to work certain hours and certain jobs I did. That carried straight through high school and college (I’ve worked full-time from age 14 to present). Initially it was nice to have pocket money, but in college it was necessary to mitigate costs.

Then we graduated college and faced the new wave of bullshit. See, after college one is meant to continue living independently whether in a house or in an apartment. The problem was, not only had housing and rental costs exploded but it had done so with a generation shouldering massive student loan debt. Few had enough money to purchase a house even with a loan, and rental costs in many areas rival that of a mortgage – all optional costs when paired with the encumbered debt of student loans whose monthly total could also rival a mortgage payment.

But society was still not done. Then, a combination of greed and stupidity nearly levelled the global economy just years after the dot.com bubble burst. Tenured staff faced layoffs in most industries as companies worked to stop the bleeding. Retirement accounts got annihilated. People lost homes and the equity associated with the home (hey, I’m not saying Millennials are the only ones who had problems).

Except that meant that people did not retire. They couldn’t retire. And rather than competing with other recent graduates for positions we had to compete with Master’s degrees and Ph.Ds for entry-level positions. Entry-level positions, mind you, that did not pay enough to cover the monthly student loan payment, transportation costs (whether public or personal), housing costs if living anywhere but home, medical costs (God help you if you have a chronic condition), and food.

In my particular case, working my way through college backfired. I did manage to secure interviews for jobs but they all ended the same way. My work experience disqualified me from internships and entry-level jobs (employers made the unilateral decision that the position was “beneath me,” even though I was willing to do it), while my degree and work experience did not merit any positions above those.

“You need to be a CPA for that position,” they would say.

“I need the supervised work hours to complete my licensing,” I would reply.

“That’s correct.”

“That’s why I put in for the other position. I figured I would complete my hours, get my CPA, and then we could discuss this position.”

“You’re over-qualified for our internship program.”

I lucked out and found a peripheral use for my degree (computer application support for accounting software) that blossomed into a niche career so far, but my wages remain stagnant.

Live in the 1990s was normal, for lack of a better word. Beyond that, it has been chaos. We lived, in the course of a decade, a lifetime worth of events. We saw the greatest domestic attack since Pearl Harbor. We lived through two “once-in-a-lifetime” financial crises with another constantly in the wings. We see a “storm-of-the-century” or “once-in-a-lifetime” meteorological event every few weeks.

I learned that employers do not give a damn about employees. Even the good ones. Sure, they might say all the right things and your manager might genuinely care about you, but if it makes more financial sense to get rid of you they will. We watch them do it by the thousands. Millennials often get questioned about their loyalty to organisations but Millennials (and now the younger generations) are the only ones pointing our the lack of loyalty organisations have to their staff.

I learned that the 4th period version of history I learned was necessarily reductive. With just American history from the 1400s to the 1980s there is too much to get into the nuance of every event. But that means they left out quite a bit, glazed over other parts, and, in some cases, probably misrepresented the reality.

Sure, we fought the Civil War and preserved the Union. We even discussed Reconstruction and Jim Crow. We never really got into the racial through line of those events and how it reflects in the systemic racism of today. Juneteenth and Tulsa never came up in class. We never discussed the racial problems in Northern states. In the context it was always the racist South causing problems.

We talked about World War II, but not about the Nazis holding a rally at Madison Square Garden. We did not discuss the boats of Jewish refugees turned away from the United States in the late 1930s. We did not discuss the widespread anti-Semitism among the Allied nations or the fact the concentration camps got liberated essentially by accident. The Allies and Soviets liberating the camps had little interest in assisting those liberated.

Then we have the creation of an Israeli state and the geopolitics of Central America, South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East that culminate in a widespread American misunderstanding of contemporary refugee crises or how to address the real instabilities in those regions (for that matter, the American role in creating those instabilities).

In the end, my point is that the Millennial identity often gets reduced to one of laziness or anti-establishment petulance.

It’s…it’s just math. The Millennial reaction in most situations is, at its heart, “Folks, I don’t think the math adds up here.” Older generations complain that Millennials are not meeting certain expectations and the response is not, “**** you, we don’t want to,” it’s, “I don’t think you all assessed how the equation changed from when you were our age. That formula no longer works. What you are asking requires more resources than we are apparently allowed to have.”

So if you find yourself asking about or doubting the prevalence of anxiety and depression disorders among Millennials, understand that the older generations spent the 1990s explaining the world to us one way before taking a nuclear weapon to it in the 2000s.


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