I have a friend who was the first in his family to go to college. He grew up poor in the rural Midwest and earned his BA from a top school in the region. But when the recession hit in the early 2000s, he could not find a job. He decided he needed more training and applied to graduate school. When Harvard accepted him, he was thrilled. Within one generation, his family’s highest level of education went from a high school diploma to an Ivy League degree.
A Harvard education was supposed to provide opportunity. But with the degree came debt. Now in his early 30s with children of his own, my friend’s social mobility has stalled. He wants his sons to have the same quality of education he did, and the professional advantages that came with it. But he does not see how this is possible. When his sons are old enough for college, he will still be paying back his own student loans. With wages stagnant and tuition fees well outpacing inflation, there is little chance he will be able to afford their education. His children will be back where he started. Mobility was a mirage.
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“It kind of sickens me to think I might have to say to my kids, ‘Hey, I went to Harvard but you can’t’,” he said. “The whole thing is turned inside out. People imagine that you are supposed to build legacies around things like that, and instead they can’t go there because I did.”
My friend is part of the so-called millennial generation: young adults born roughly between the late 1970s and the late 1990s. While the start and end dates of the millennial generation are up for debate – and the idea of inherent generational traits is dubious – people of this age group share an important quality. They have no adult experience in a functional economy.
Millennials are a favourite target of the media, who portray their economic plight as a character flaw. In a recent cover story, “The Me Me Me Generation“, TIME declared millennials “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents”. While generational trolling spares no cohort, there was something particularly callous about TIME‘s depiction of young adults facing the worst economy since the Great Depression.
“Have you seen your intern on Rich Kids of Instagram?” Atlantic‘s Elspeth Reeve writes, noting that the TIME portrayal seems modelled on privileged interns able to work for free. “If so, he or she is probably not the best guide to crafting the composite personality of a generation that fought three wars for you.”
“Adults still living with their parents” is the classic millennial trope. What is forgotten is how many millennials are parents themselves. As of 2010, 34 percent of US residents aged 18-29 had children, according to one poll. Fewer than one-third of people in this age group have a full-time job. They have minimal savings and the highest student loan debt in recorded history. Most cannot afford cars, homes, health insurance or other material goods once considered basic elements of life in the US. A generation that can barely stand on its feet is in charge of another generation’s welfare.
Lack of options
Being a responsible parent means planning for the future. But when many millennial parents look into the future, they see a void.
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Financial journalist Gillian Tett notes how economic polarisation creates different cognitive maps. “If you were to ask wealthy Americans to visualise the future, they might well describe it as a carefully calibrated road along which they expect to travel,” she writes. “But if you ask poorer Americans, who are scrambling from pay cheque to pay cheque, they are more likely to perceive the future as a chaotic series of short-term cycles.”
Millennials are almost uniformly poorer Americans. Those who are financially secure tend to have family wealth. According to a 2012 Pew survey, 38 percent of millennials say their current financial situation is linked to their parents’ financial situation. Millennials are chastised for leaning on elders, but the new rules of the economy demand it. Unpaid internships are often prerequisites to full-time jobs, and the ability to take them is based on money, not merit. Young adults who live off wealthy parents are the lucky few. They can envision a future because they can envision its purchase. Almost everyone else is locked out of the game.
Dependence may be the primary trait of the millennial generation, but it is a structural dependence, caused not by “laziness” or “narcissism” but by a lack of options or social mobility. For millennials much more than for the generations which immediately preceded them, the future is determined by the past. The son is indebted to the debt of the father.
When I ask millennial parents about how they see their children’s future, they tell me they do not like to think about it. It is one thing to discover, as an adult, that the rules have been rewritten, that the job market will not recover, that you will scramble to survive. It is another to raise a child knowing that no matter how hard they work, how talented they are, how big they dream, they will not have opportunities – because in the new economy, opportunities are bought, not earned. You know this, but you cannot tell this to a child. The millennial parent is always Santa, always a little bit of a liar.
Some may argue that the children of millennials do not have it so bad. Even if their parents cannot save enough to pay for college, surely they can apply for scholarships. But in the new economy, scholarships are increasingly reserved for the rich. According to a report from the New America Foundation, colleges give “merit aid” to wealthy students who can afford to pay nearly full tuition at the expense of aid to low-income students.
The goal is to increase the university’s prestige by building an affluent student body. But the consequences for social mobility are so dire that the authors of the study argue for government intervention. “Federal action is needed to ensure that colleges continue to provide a gateway to opportunity, rather than perpetuating inequality by limiting college access to only those who are rich enough to be able to afford it,” they write.
The children of the millennials have been born into a United States of entrenched meritocracy – what Pierre Bourdieu called “the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit”. Success is allegedly based on competition, not background, but one must be prepared to pay to play.
“This reliance on un- or underpaid labour is part of a broader move to a ‘privilege economy’ instead of a merit economy – where who you know and who pays your bills can be far more important than talent,” writes journalist Farai Chideya, noting that this system often locks out minorities. By charging more for a year’s college tuition than the average median income, universities ensure that poor people stay poor while debt-ridden graduates join their ranks. By requiring unpaid internships, professions such as journalism ensure positions of influence will be filled only by those who can pay for them. The cycle of privilege and privation continues.
The economy may seem bad now, but the true test will come in the next two decades, when the children of the “screwed generation” reap the meagre harvest of their parents’ lost opportunities. Perhaps, then we will return to the ideal of equal opportunity because we will have witnessed the long-term consequences of its erosion.
In the meantime, millennial parents surrender their dreams in favour of survival. That is what a good parent does. It is much harder to surrender a child’s dreams as well.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior