If I described a group of people in their early 20s, at least one with questionable facial hair and one with great bangs, all college graduates, working at jobs where they are underpaid or underutilized (or both), or not working at all, who sometimes use a parent’s credit card to buy both essential and non-essential things, would those people sound familiar to you? Would you be all, “Oh, of course, those are the characters in seminal 90s movie ‘Reality Bites’?” Well, no. That’s not who I’m describing at all. And you probably only thought that because you are either old (the 90s was a really long time ago), or because you think everything is a pop culture reference, which is, surprisingly, not always the case. In fact, though, I am describing people who you probably already know because you’re probably already one of them. I am describing Brooklyn’s millennials. And it’s a group that, as a whole, might just be totally screwed.
In a New York Times article titled “Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?”, Annie Lowrey—who herself belongs to the millennial generation—discusses whether or not all the people born between roughly 1980-1990 are going to have any chance of achieving the material success of the generations that came before them: “For the first time in modern memory, a whole generation might not prove wealthier than the one that preceded it.” Lowrey’s premise is depressingly familiar both as one that has been acknowledged before in the media and also anecdotally, as in, we all totally know lots of people in their twenties who are struggling. The article is an acknowledgment of the fact that millennials bear the burden of not only entering a job market during an economic recession, but also of having their generation’s most valuable asset—a surplus of advanced degrees—usually carrying a staggering amount of debt in the form of student loans along with, you know, academic prestige. So, now, when millennials think about achieving the American Dream of owning a home and being able to save for retirement, they quickly realize that it might not be possible, no matter how hard they work and how much they try to save. So, that all pretty much sucks, doesn’t it? Yes. It does.
One way that this dire economic situation has manifested itself is that members of the millennial generation “have developed a reputation for a certain materialism.” Lowrey cites “a Pew Research Center survey in which different generations were asked what made them unique, baby boomers responded with qualities like ‘work ethic’; millennials offered ‘clothes.’” While it is possible that this focus on a material-based identity is a product of a preoccupation based on the fact that millennials can’t even afford some of the most standard social status symbols (a car, cable TV, etc.) there are other troubling societal elements at play. Lowrey references the generation of Americans, including her grandmother, who came of age during the Great Depression and carried their thrifty habits with them throughout their lives. Lowrey notes that this generation is “one that saved rather than spent, preserved rather than squandered.” So true. My own grandmother used to use the same paper towel over and over again until it developed holes. She would roll her eyes at me when I would throw one out that had only been used to wipe up spilled water and she would ignore my protests that paper towels literally grew on trees (I was a jerk as a kid too) before fishing it out of the garbage, folding it, and placing it by the kitchen sink to use again. So, yeah, that generation knew how to save things.