Last night, I was perusing the comments section of an article about the New Hampshire primaries, won handily by Sen. Bernie Sanders. One commenter lashed out against his supporters (of which Millennials are a significant portion), saying that our generation is the “Entitlement Generation,” waiting with hands out for all kinds of “free stuff” from the government.
It’s a talking point that my generation has heard over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. Not only is it incredibly insulting, it’s patently false.
This is not a piece about Bernie vs. Hillary. That is a debate for another day and another piece. Nor is this a plug for Bernie’s policy proposals.
No, this is instead a piece about the problematic labelling of Millennials as a generation of entitled people, eagerly awaiting a government handout and too lazy to put in the work necessary to succeed in the contemporary American economy. To disparage an entire generation in this manner fails to acknowledge reality, including the host of economic and social issues that has led to our generation being branded as such.
First, some history. Fifty years ago, it was widely accepted (indeed, it was reality) that a high school diploma and strong work ethic were the only prerequisites to accessing the American Dream, namely a good paying job, a decent home, transportation, and other necessities and luxuries that produced a robust middle class and gave Americans some of the highest standards of living in the world. With a high school diploma, one could often find a good-paying job, with access to benefits, pensions, and other things that my grandparents’ generation took for granted as hallmarks of American labor. Successful completion of public schooling was the only education required.
A few decades later, however, educational requirements increased and some form of college was necessary to achieve success. My parents’ generation, while not earning degrees at the same rate as do Millennials, began to attend two- and four-year schools with increasing frequency. Earning a degree all on one’s own was a very possible proposition.
My Dad, of whom I am extremely proud and grateful for, was able to pay his own way through school by working a minimum wage job. It was hard work, but it was possible because the minimum wage was sufficiently high to allow him to pay tuition, and tuition was low enough that working such a job to pay for school was possible. Had minimum wage been as stagnant then as it was now, and had tuition been as exorbitantly high then as it is now, this might not have been possible.
Of course, his strong work ethic (which has served as my inspiration as I pursue my own career dreams) was the ultimate factor that made his success possible. I do not mean to say that he only got where he is because college was affordable and his wage was able to pay for his education.
But rising costs of higher education and stagnant wages, coupled with a host of other societal factors, means that my Dad’s story is one that is increasingly rare in contemporary America.
Millennials grew up in a culture very different from that of their parents or grandparents. We grew up in a culture obsessed with consumerism, fixated on the acquisition of wealth, and disdainful of the poor. We grew up in a world where the only guarantee of a good paying job meant getting a four-year degree, and the economic situation of the past nine years has meant that even a four-year degree is no guarantee of success.
We have been told that we are a generation of coddled, lazy, entitled people. And widespread support of a presidential candidate who promises “free stuff” might, on its face, support that assertion.
But make no mistake: Millennials do not want “free stuff,” we want a fairer society that isn’t rigged against us. We want a society where, if you are willing to work, you will get ahead.
To simply write off an entire generation who wants to create such a society as “lazy” and “entitled” is a slap in the face to those who have worked incredibly hard–hard work that isn’t even guaranteed to pay off and offer return on investment.
We are a generation that feels disillusioned because we have seen what it takes to be successful from our parents and grandparents. But our parents’ and grandparents’ generation has taken an active part in creating the current structure, which mandates the possession of a four-year degree (often at extraordinary cost and necessitating the encumbrance of massive amounts of student loan debt), a degree which fails to secure the promise of a job with decent wages, if a job in the degree field at all.
It really sucks to be written off as lazy and entitled when the very generation deriding us as such created the current state of affairs. I’m reminded of the parent who laments that his child is spoiled, when the parent continues to give the child whatever they want. It seems to me incredibly hypocritical for these generations to have created this culture to then turn around and say, “Well, your generation is the worst ever and incredibly lazy. Just work harder and you’ll be fine!”
Perhaps forty years ago the “work harder” mantra would have been sage advice. But now, Millennials are putting in the hard work we’ve been told is necessary for success without seeing the same levels of success as our forebears. Therein lies the incredible frustration (and this is why a candidate like Bernie Sanders is so popular with our generation): all our lives, we’ve been given the supposed recipe for getting a good education, a good job, and living a good life. But the process is much worse than we were led to believe.
Who in a developed country like the United States should have to take out a mortgage to get a college education? Who should have to see their wages remain stagnant? Who should have to invest in higher education, only to enter a job market not fully prepared to accept them?
And when these issues are raised, they’re brushed off. No, we can’t have tuition-free public universities because it costs too much. Okay, that’s a fair point. No, we can’t reduce interest rates on federal student loans. That makes less sense, but okay. No, we can’t increase Pell Grants and other programs that make college more affordable for lower-income students. You mean these same students you pushed towards college because it offered the promise of a better life?
Wow. The entire system seems to be a vicious cycle of “Here’s how to get ahead, but here are all the things that suck about the process of getting ahead” and “Oh, you want us to alleviate all the things that suck about the process of getting ahead? Ha! Good luck with that one!”
I have encountered an extraordinary number of decent, hardworking people in my generation (in my experience, this is definitely the rule rather than the exception). People who put in the time and work necessary to succeed in college, and who also took on a considerable amount of debt in the process. All for the “promise” of a good career and good life. And I have seen these same people stuck in jobs their degree did not pay them for, earning wages no college graduate should be earning given their hard work and investment, and incredibly displeased with the track of their professional lives.
These are issues that need timely solutions and, of course, there are no easy answers. But make no mistake, they will need solving if the Millennials and those who come after us are to have any shot at a good middle class life.
Some ideas are bold. Tuition-free public college and single-payer health care are ideas a good portion of America finds incredibly uncomfortable (pay no mind to the fact that many other developed countries figured this out decades ago). And when you examine our generation and our disillusionment with the ways of the establishment, you can call us idealistic, naïve, radical, or any permutation of those things. But please, don’t call us entitled for wanting a better shot at getting ahead.