Millennial Work Ethic


So for the last few days I’ve been following a regular Millennial Telenovella of Snark over a young Millenial (25ish) who wrote an open letter to the CEO of Yelp to say that the wages they were paying were not enough to live on in the Bay area. She was then smacked down by an older Millenial (29ish), who was quite sure that the younger gal just wasn’t working hard enough. That Millennial was taken down by a still older Millennial (30 something) who smacked down a privilege card so fast it was like playing slap-Jack with an enthusiastic girl scout at sleep away camp.

In spite of following this thread with rapt, popcorn eating attention, I can’t help but feel like the whole exercise does nothing for the image of Millennials of any age. I find myself unclear whether the point of the argument was that major companies should pay a living wage or that Millennials are too lazy to do what it takes to make ends meet. One thing is for sure: we just can’t wait to cut each other down with our acerbic, educated, disillusioned wits.

At the risk of piling on, I have to observe that the whole conversation seems to be circling around the vast empty chasm between our desire to achieve basic living standards and our inability to work hard enough, long enough, or smart enough to actually reach them. And while some people may argue that Millennials feel entitled to things, I would counter that the whole point of the American Dream was believing that the opportunity existed by which you could make your life better through hard work. And I don’t happen to believe that Millennials are lazy- we want to work and we’re willing to work hard, but when the gap between the cost of living and our ability to earn it gets so wide that we find ourselves falling behind our parents generation we begin to ask ourselves: is the problem with us as individuals or with the system as a whole?

Here’s an example: I’m in grad school. My tuition is in the five digits and as a grad student I can’t get subsidized loans so every cent is either out of my pocket or debt. I work as a Student Assistant for a class which comes with a stipend financial award. The financial award covers slightly less than two credits worth of tuition and comes out of the same funds as scholarships. I also have a scholarship which also covers about two credits of tuition- if it were a bigger scholarship then I would have to waive my student assistance award. So that’s four credits of tuition. Eight credits is a full load. The assistance-ship also pays an hourly rate, about ten dollars an hour, STRICTLY capped at 20 hours per week- for all on campus jobs. So even if I had a job at the library and a second job at the gym, I’d still only be allowed to work twenty  hours in a week. I suspect this cap has to do with health insurance: the school requires you to have it, but they sure as hell aren’t subsidizing it. I have two on campus jobs. I also have an internship two days a week- about ten dollars an hour for sixteen hours of work.

So not counting, you know, classes, I work nearly full time just to cover the cost of tuition. I couldn’t get the SAship until after I took the class ( so for three semesters I was ineligible). I couldn’t apply for the scholarship until I attended the scholarship application seminar then waited for the application period to close (I missed the first seminar due to class obligations so it took me four semesters to apply). So while I’m nearly breaking even now, in my final semester, I spent three or four semesters draining my funds into tuition with no prospect of being able to stop the flow. And not because I wasn’t working hard.

Graduate school is a luxury. I’m very very privileged to get to experience it. I’m clear on that, but it’s also a parable for the real world: the cost is prohibitive: if you want to participate these days then you’re either rich or you’re in debt. And that’s not right. It needs to change and it’s ok to say so. It’s like setting the bar four stories above the ground and then telling everybody that they just need to jump higher.

If we really want to make America great again then what we really want is opportunity:  a chance to show what our hard work can do and a fair enough playing field to believe that the work will pay off.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on February 25, 2016.

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