I’ve been seeing two articles pop up on social media a lot lately. One is this article via Huffington Post from Wait but Why about the Millennials and how they’re unhappy because they expect too much out of life. The article is pretty tightly written so I won’t excerpt it, only try to summarize it:
Their parents lived in an unusually good time, and they basically expect everything to be handed to them on a platter – a fulfulling job that they are uniquely good at, that pays them enough to live a pleasant life outside of work. Not only is life not usually like that (they see the end result but not what life was like for their parents – or grandparents – starting out), but they also compare their life outcomes not to their peers’ actual lives, but to the carefully curated social media images of their friends’ lives, which naturally emphasize the successes. So even though the truth that most people aren’t unusually special is a disappointment, in fact their perception is even worse, because it seems like their friends actually are special, and each person thinks they’re the only one in their peer group who isn’t.
The other is this rebuttal by Adam Weinstein saying that it’s not that the Millennials have unusual expectations – it’s just that things are actually worse. Students have more debt than ever before, and it’s really hard to find a good job, and even “good” jobs have long hours and don’t pay enough to live a decent life:
You have no idea about student debt, underemployment, life-long renting. “Stop feeling special” is some shitty advice. I don’t feel special or entitled, just poor. The only thing that makes me special is I have more ballooning debt than you. I’ve tempered the hell out of my expectations of work, and I’ve exceeded those expectations crazily to have one interesting, exciting damned career that’s culminated in some leadership roles for national publications. And I’m still poor and in debt and worked beyond the point where it can be managed with my health and my desire to actually see the son I’m helping to raise.
What’s interesting about this is the hidden assumptions – and these hidden assumptions are very stereotypically millennial. Adam Weinstein is a journalist. In case you hadn’t noticed, people have been talking about the decline of journalism as a business for more than a decade. They’ve been talking about how the major publications don’t make the kind of profits they used to, because there’s more competition. Because of the internet.
At no point in the article does Weinstein talk about the choice to pursue a career in journalism. It seems like it is unthinkable to him that he would choose any other career than his passion. It is thinkable that the job he loves would not pay very much, require nearly unbearable hours, or be very difficult to advance in. Because these are the things he talks about. But who said he had to be in journalism? If the pay and hours are so bad that they make your life miserable, why not pick a different career?
If the suggestion that you might abandon your “dream job” to do something less fulfilling that supports a better lifestyle otherwise offends you, that is a very millennial attitude.
Adam Weinstein seems like a smart guy. He knows how to make a cogent argument (within the limits of his personal blind spots and biases). He could probably be a good technical writer, or a mediocre project manager, mediocre computer programmer, or system administrator. The hours would be much lighter, and the pay would be higher too.
If the prospect of a career where you are only “mediocre” offends you, that is also a very millenial attitude.
But ask yourself – what would you do if you’d been born into (or found yourself teleported into) a world where your dream job didn’t exist at all. What would Adam Weinstein do if he were born in the Roman empire, before the invention of journalism? He wouldn’t write an article complaining that there are no jobs for journalists. He would never have gotten the idea to be a journalist. There’s nothing in his genes that makes him uniquely suited for this one and only one job. And even if there were, most people at most times haven’t been able to do their “dream job” – if in fact their dream is to have a job at all.
Or what would you do if you were born in a place or time where your “dream job” was not just on the decline, but had ceased to exist at all? Someone today who wants to be a blacksmith could maybe find a factory metalworking job, or make swords or shears as special curio pieces at Ren Faires or for ARMA hobbyists or the few remaining bespoke tailors - but most of them will just not have that particular dream job, and find some other outlet for their skills and interests.
It is not unreasonable to expect a lifestyle on the order of what your parents enjoyed – or better (because of economic progress). Separately, it is not unreasonable to expect a job that is fulfilling. But what is an unreasonable expectation is to assume that there is no tradeoff; to assume that you will enjoy your parents’ level of affluence (or even a comfortable middle class life), and then separately and independently pick a job based solely on what you want to do during your workday.
I don’t know why some people do and others don’t, but I have never really had a firm idea of a “dream job.” So when I graduated college I picked something that seemed moderately interesting, would teach me some useful skills I could use later in other interesting jobs, and paid well. I love my friends and want them to do well, so of course I sympathize when the jobs they would love to do are unavailable, hard to get, or available on an unpaid or low-paid internship basis only. But the world changes, people have always been doing jobs they didn’t love, and there’s always been a tradeoff between the agreeableness of the job and the amount you get paid for it.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t real problems with the economy of course. Unemployment is high. Lots of people are going onto SSI or SSDI, who in a different economy might have found remunerative work. And that’s not because people suddenly became greedy, unreasonable, or spoiled in 2007 or 2008. But a journalist with college debt is not a typical exemplar of that. Most people in America don’t go to college, and most of those that do get a degree to qualify them for some particular field, and seek out a secure decent-paying job. The fact that those people can’t find work as often is a problem we ought to do something about – and the fact that the same degrees require more and more debt relative to lifetime earnings, but are still the only way to buy into a certain type of professional-class job. But the fact that someone who chose to work in a dying industry (or at least, an industry suffering from oversupply) has trouble finding a job where they can make ends meet – that’s sad for them, but it is and has always been the cost of economic growth through “creative destruction” – and the good jobs they heard about growing up would never have existed were it not for the same process.