by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage
Earlier this year, I accepted a position teaching English to elementary school students in the countryside of South Korea. Teaching ESL in Asia is increasingly said to be the “student loan repayment program” for my generation, the first “global” generation. As someone from a typical lower middle class background with two college degrees and the debt that comes with them, I can understand why ESL programs have earned that nickname.
“What a wonderful experience it will be.” This is a common refrain I hear from most baby boomers, and even a significant number of older gen-xers, about my decision to leave the United States to find gainful employment. My fellow millennials, on the other hand, are far less likely to view my expatriation as an “experience,” but rather something indicative of the corrupted economic and political systems that exist in the United States.
Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to teach in South Korea. However, having a fun, worldly, or interesting “experience” was never a priority. This job is not my personal version of backpacking through Europe or a modern substitute for attending Woodstock ‘69. It’s not a soul-seeking adventure or a chance to see the world before entering the “real” one. In truth, it’s a desperate grasp for financial stability and survival in the modern economy.
The term “millennial” is thrown around a lot in the media and in our daily conversations, but without much discussion as to what it actually means. Despite the lack of a concise definition of the term, millennials are frequently criticized for our “entitlement” mentality, short attention span and penchant for electronic devices. Millennials have (sometimes maliciously) been called the “boomerang generation” for our tendency to move back in with their parents after college or during gaps in employment. In the now notorious article Millennials: the Me Me Me Generation, Time magazine author Joel Stein wrote that millennials are lazy, selfish and narcissistic. Author Bruce Tulgan referred to millennials the “most high maintenance workforce in the history of the world.”
Are these criticisms of millennials valid, or simply a narrow way of viewing but one symptom of a widespread and systemic socio-economic problem? In a sense, the urge to blame millennials for the problems they encounter is understandable. If millennials are lazy, entitled, poor decision makers, or simply unemployable, then we needn’t scrutinize ourselves as a society or our hallowed economic or political institutions any further.
So what is a “millennial?” Millennials are typically said to be the group of people born between 1980 and 2000. However, most millennials would argue that neither a common date of birth nor our supposed entitlement are what really bind us as a group. An alternative definition could be as follows; we are burdened by unprecedented student loan debt. We are overeducated for the jobs that are available, yet lack the work experience required to land the jobs we want, need, or were trained for. While we might have the latest iPhone, we most assuredly don’t have a pension, nor do we know anyone else our own age that does, aside from the occasional military veteran. We have never really considered retirement a serious option, and we have long ago abandoned the certainty of home ownership, parenthood, or living debt free. This is what it truly means to be a millennial for a lot of us.
Framing the hardships experienced by the young as a “generational conflict” is becoming taboo in American culture in the same way that “class warfare” has been for decades. However, statistical data, the current cultural zeitgeist, and political context give the theory of cross-generational warfare some legitimacy. While conventional wisdom tells us that the “generational war” is one primarily of economics and perhaps exploitation, it is better described as a conflict of ideas, beliefs and attitudes.
Generational tension is, of course, nothing new. The young have complained about the old, and the old have complained about the young since about the time we learned to walk upright and on two legs. However, anti-millennial sentiment seems abnormally strong these days, perhaps due to the hardships faced by millennials and the social upheaval and rejection of societal norms exhibited by millennials as a result. Millennials are increasingly abandoning the institutions and philosophies that the baby boomers helped to cement in American culture in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Millennials are beginning to question the established and assumed norms surrounding employment, education, globalization, capitalism and representative democracy.
While millennials first flexed their political muscles by supporting Barack Obama’s “hope and change” campaign in 2008, the political transformation instigated by the baby boomers came in the form of the Reagan Revolution. The baby boomers championed neo-liberal policies in the 1980s and 1990s that suppressed unions, cut government programs, cut taxes on the wealthy, exploded the deficit, expanded free trade, reduced public supports for tuition, and reduced the financial regulations that restricted bad behavior by corporate actors. These policies have been detrimental to the American middle class, and are in stark contrast to the welfare and safety net politics cultivated by the baby boomers’ parents.
Since 1980, average wages have stagnated, unions have virtually disappeared, and student loan debt has skyrocketed. Economic inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and financial stability and job security is out of reach for many families just starting out. The cost of everything from housing to energy to education and food are all significantly higher than they were 35 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation. The environment now sits on a razors edge due to the proliferation of cheap and dirty energy production and lackluster attempts at conservation over the last half century. Unfortunately for millennials, they are shouldering a disproportionate share of the negative consequences and externalities caused by decades of neo-liberal policies.
My story could easily be confused with a caricature of the struggles faced by millennials. I was raised by boomers in the Bush-Clinton era as a child of lower middle class parents, and told that college was the only option for a better life. Once in college, I worked about 30 hours per week at a fast food chain in order to afford gas and books, while at the same time berated by an economics professor for working because “money is cheap to borrow” and how I should be devoting my free time to my studies rather than a dead-end service industry job. In my junior year, I read an article in my university’s newspaper that reported that college graduates were becoming increasingly disappointed in their post-college careers and that a growing number of grads were taking low wage service industry jobs or are unable to repay their student loans. The article put a knot in my stomach, and this was the first indication that my life after college would not exactly align with the expectations that society had etched into my consciousness.
I graduated in December 2008, just three months into what would be called the Great Recession. While I had already accumulated over $50,000 in debt, I was considering graduate school because of the abysmal response rate I had experienced when sending out resumes. In the fall of 2009, I doubled down on academia as a method of upward economic mobility and entered a master’s program. More than 6 years later, a toxic combination of high personal debt, consistent underemployment and a floundering American job market has not only forced me to explore options outside of my professional field, but also outside my home country. While forty years ago it would have been unheard of for a college graduate with multiple degrees to be unable to find adequate work in the United States, today it could be considered the new normal.
My seemingly insurmountable student loan debt is not uncommon within my peer group; student loan debt has been steadily climbing for decades and shows no signs of slowing. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average college student graduated with approximately $9,000 in student loan debt in 1993 after adjusting for inflation. By comparison, the first millennials graduated from college in 2002, and were burdened by approximately double the amount of student loan debt as those who had graduated just ten year earlier, at around $18,000 per student. By 2014, average student loan debt had shot up to $33,000 per student. This means in the 20 year period from 1993 to 2014, student loan debt increased nearly four-fold. Over the same period, college enrollment exploded, which saturated the market with graduates and severely diminished the value of a college diploma. In sum, the cost of a college degree has gone up exponentially while the value of a college degree has plummeted, leaving many millennials feeling economically alienated and frustrated.
Another substantial and growing problem encountered by the millennial generation is the increasingly dubious prospect of starting a family. The cost of child care is increasing at a startling pace, and even those millennials lucky enough to have a sufficient amount of disposable income are having a hard time keeping up. According to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute titled High Quality Child Care is Out of Reach for Working Families, child care is now more expensive than rent in the vast majority of American cities. Utica’s upstate neighbor of Binghamton was found to have the least affordable child care in the United States when adjusted for the local cost of living. Binghamton residents pay on average $692 per month on rent, but $2,011 per month on child care. The study found that only about 20% of U.S. cities spend more on rent than they do on child care. According to BloombergBusiness, the cost of child care has outpaced the rate of inflation by 2 to 1 since 1990.
The fact that the cost of child care is increasingly faster than the cost of housing is incredibly troubling because, as they say, “the rent is too damn high.” Adjusted for inflation, average rent in the United States was $573 per month in 1970. By the year 2000, rent had climbed to $831 per month. The most recent estimates put the average cost of rent in the United States at around $962 per month, close to double what it had been thirty years earlier. The fact that child care is growing even faster than the already swelling cost of housing is a major concern for millennials interested in financial independence and starting a family.
The “generational war” can be difficult to discuss because a large number of baby boomers are not economically stable themselves, and resent the notion that they “stole” the future of their children. Ironically, most baby boomers did not benefit from the policies that they had supported during the Reagan Revolution, or were in fact actively harmed by them. The advent of neo-liberal globalization enabled by baby boomers only enriched a small percentage of wealthy and connected individuals; the vast majority of baby boomers saw their wages stagnate or their jobs outsourced, eliminated, or rendered obsolete. In this sense, it is unfair for millennials to accuse the entire baby boomer generation for sucking up vast sums of wealth while leaving millennials to suffer, because that is just not the case. However, baby boomers can be legitimately blamed for enabling via the voting booth the massive shift in income distribution toward the top 1% and the dramatic rise in economic inequality of the last forty years. For this reason, the generational war is one of ideas and politics, not economics.
While millennials may have legitimate grievances against their parent’s generation, millennials would do well to channel that rage elsewhere. The baby boomers and millennials actually share a common enemy, and that is the wealthy business class that has no loyalty to the American worker. While it is important for baby boomers to understand the plight of millennials, only when people of all generations come together to understand and address economic fairness will the problems we face have a chance at resolution.
Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Kevin previously sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and taught as an adjunct lecturer of Government and Politics at Utica College.