No Savings? No Problem! The Millennials Are as Overconfident as Ever

New York magazine has just published a lengthy piece by Noreen Malone entitled “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright” that merits consideration.  I’m not linking to it because the NYM website is full of scandalous material.  I will quote extensively from it in engaging some of its ideas.

Malone is a Georgetown University graduate who formerly wrote for Slate.  She is a gifted and entertaining writer who nicely mixes anecdote with statistical information.  Her essay is essentially an apology for the generation known as the Millennials, the modern drifters who swear they aren’t materialistic but track the latest Apple gadget like a mercenary in need of one last bounty.  The Millennials, raised at the hands of the Boomers, offer a confused array of assessments of their lives and prospects in the piece.

Some of the twentysomethings we meet express frustration at their situations.  This despite their sometimes curious choice of college degree programs:

You become a little like my friend Lael Goodman. “The worst thing is that I’ve always gotten self-worth from performance, especially good grades. But now that I can’t get a job, I feel worthless,” she says. Lael, who is 27, was the valedictorian of her high school and did very well in college too. Unable to find a position that paid a decent wage using her En­glish degree, she got a master’s at the University of Michigan in environmental studies. She does technically have a job, for now, filling in for a woman on maternity leave at a D.C. nonprofit, but it’s not one that prevents all her go-getting from seeming for naught. Lael feels like she’s stranded on the wrong rung. “All the articles in the newspaper say that investing in an IRA now means I’ll have hundreds of thousands of extra dollars down the road, so I should just scrimp and save,” she says. “But I can’t scrimp and save because I’m doing that just to afford housing and groceries. So I’m screwed now, unable to enjoy young adulthood in the way that I feel I was promised, and screwed for the future.”

Malone’s friend “Sam” is also struggling.  Apparently he thought he was going to be able to take a “life-enriching sabbatical” in his twenties.  He’s positively stunned that he can’t:

Then there is my friend Sam (not his real name, because he felt that if I used his real name, he’d truly be unemployable). In high school, Sam was the sports captain who set all the curves in calculus. I used to call him up the night before physics tests to figure out what I should know. Sam went to the best college he got into, for which he took out $50,000 in loans. He signed up for some abstract-math courses, was cowed by classmates who worked theorems for kicks, and majored in poetry writing rather than fall short in the subject he’d built so much of his identity on. After graduating, he took a job as a woodworker’s apprentice, not the expected outcome for a grade-grubbing gunner, but also not all that unusual back in the days before every decision about which major to sign up for or job to take started to feel make-or-break. One thing about being the boomers’ heirs growing up in boom times was that it used to be okay to take a life-enriching sabbatical. There was no reason to think you wouldn’t eventually be able to get back on track.

Watching many colleagues was an unsettling experience that caused Malone to create some identificatory distance from her work:

I’m one of those young people always calling themselves lucky: I’ve been employed throughout the downturn, in the industry that I wanted to work in. But at my old job, there were several rounds of layoffs. The first robbed me of my cubicle mate, the last (which came after I’d left) hit veteran colleagues at the top of their games. Watching that, I decided to never count on career stability and have tried to be less defined by my work.

Others agree with this philosophy, including Malone’s friend Desi, the grandson of philosopher John Rawls.  He’s delivering cloth diapers and enjoying tinkering as a craftsman:

The morning before we met, Desi’s motorcycle had broken down. If his truck goes next, he won’t have the money to fix it. “A little bit of bad luck, and things can unravel pretty quickly,” he said. But Desi wanted to sell me on the merits of constrained circumstances, not tick off tales of woe. He is still delivering diapers, but he’s now got another job as a woodworker-slash-lacquerer. He finds a satisfaction in the craft that eluded Sam, my high school’s former can’t-miss kid, during his woodworking interregnum. Desi does a great deal of yoga. He proselytizes about the book Shop Class As Soulcraft. “Getting better at enjoying life” is something he describes very seriously as a goal. This is not something that requires a big salary, and he doesn’t think his mind-set will change much with age. He has only so much sympathy for the complaints of his girlfriend, a 2011 college graduate working retail who is devastated that she’s been unable to find a job that requires a degree.

Malone builds on Desi’s arguments to suggest that despite social and economic challenges that rank as the worst in 80 years, Millennials are invincibly optimistic about their prospects (this mirrors the stats, referenced here, that show that American children dramatically overestimate their academic ability):

Remember how most Americans think this generation will be worse off than the one that preceded it? This generation doesn’t agree. A plurality of young people still think they’ll do better than their parents. Our optimism is surprisingly durable. A large-scale Pew study published in 2010 showed that about 90 percent of us either say that we currently have enough money or will eventually meet our long-term financial goals—we’re more hopeful on that front, in fact, than we were before the recession.

The essential mindset of the generation is summed in this comment from a youngster:

“My parents are well off financially, but I’m better off culturally.”

The piece concludes by laughing at the precarious situation of our age:

Desi and I tried to picture the country in 50 years, as a kind of parlor game. “Oh! Mushroom cloud! It’s going to be a disaster!” he said. “It’s so overwhelming there’s nothing in particular to be worried about.” We both laughed, because it’s true.

**************

This piece makes some good points, in my estimation.  It captures the bewildering experience of a child of privilege in an age of peril.  Twentysomethings of our day were in many cases raised to be deeply optimistic about their prospects.  If they just worked hard, opportunities would materialize in front of them and allow them to lead a life wedding the utmost vocational satisfaction with seemingly limitless personal enrichment through travel, cultural engagement, and materialism (to the degree desired by the individual).  Many of Malone’s interviewees are from relatively well-off families and say as much.  The Boomers, it seems, tweaked the classic formulation of the American dream.  If you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, not only will you have what want in a financial sense, but you will be personally fulfilled, the inheritor of all your dreams.  Longshoremen in 19th-century Massachusetts, or thrifty Midwestern prairie homemakers, would have understood the “bootstraps” part but not the “fulfilled” part–that’s the modern twist.  Work should not only give you money–a means to provide and save–but happiness.  If it doesn’t, then switch jobs until you find it.

The comments of the first few subjects of Malone’s piece reflect this general reality, and I do not belittle them.  They were trained as their parents wished.  We are all narcissistic and sinful, but the Millennials did not ask to be reared as “Generation Me,” as Jean Twenge has so helpfully said (her book of the same title is one of the ten most important cultural works in the last decade, explaining so much of our zeitgeist).  Furthermore, as suggested throughout the piece, I do think that it is a good thing to not find one’s identity in one’s work.  As Christians, our identity is in Christ.  Surely our calling is closely related to this spiritual-theological reality, but we are not automatons, worker bees, but holistic beings who in many ways and in many mediums give glory to God.  The family, not the workplace, has the primacy.  The church comes second after the family, with work ranking a distant third in terms of our priorities.

Some of the people profiled in this piece have made choices that have negatively affected their economic prospects.   It may be personally meaningful to study environmental studies–and such work may lead to a job–but research shows that many of the jobs associated with this sector are going to be non-profit and not high-paying.  The Millennials are of two minds on this point.  They want maximal vocational satisfaction, but they also want enough money to survive, save, and even live comfortably.  I would suggest that this is a very good impulse.  There’s some bad thinking in evangelical circles that suggests that money is inherently bad and that a comfortable life is morally compromised.  Money certainly is involved in many sins (see 1 Timothy 6:10) but I know of no biblical teaching that suggests that it is by nature evil.  Proverbs suggests that we should desire “neither poverty nor riches” (Proverbs 30:8), while several books–Job and Acts–show wealthy Christians who are blessed of God (and use their wealth wisely and virtuously).

Desi, who is blissful about his prospects in a manner unique to single twentysomethings, may well be able to continue working a low-intensity job while pursuing various side interests.  Here’s the thing about so many of my peers, though: they have absolutely no category for future provision for their families.  Now, the average marriage age is rising and birth rates are dropping, but there will still be many of these drifter-types who end up married with kids (at least for a few decades!).  It’s crazy to think as a man (from a complementarian worldview) that one can deliver diapers long-term and still enjoy the kind of joie de vivre that Desi does currently.  It just won’t work.  But the Millennials don’t think in these categories, and so they feel carefree about their work choices in a way that most Christian men simply cannot and must not. Christians, whether men or women, might even want to think strategically about their career, consulting such resources as the index of growing industries produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The aforementioned expectations about work–that it will give meaning and fun–can appear laughable, at least for many readers who work full-time.  Sam, for example, expected to have a “life-enriching sabbatical” in his twenties.  Somewhere, our ancestors are cracking up right now.  Try telling a Victorian factory-worker or a medieval serf (or most people in most every age and place of the earth) that you expect a year to yourself in your twenties for personal enrichment.  The idea is inconceivable.  Again, the promises many parents made to their children in recent decades are laughable–well-intentioned, but laughable.  Did wealthy Boomers teach their children that they would have to actually, you know, work, that the life these parents enjoyed–with ski trips and Paris vacations and life-enriching sabbaticals–came at the cost of decades of hard work (in most instances)?  I’m not sure that they did, and that’s a massive cultural problem that is morphing quickly into an economic one.  Character and virtue training matter.

There is a significant lack of character formation in our culture today.  Many young types laugh at the media of the past, the popular conceptions of bygone eras, but those ages knew something that seems lost on many Millennials.  Life is hard.  Money matters.  Saving is not bad (or for Christians, a lack of faith), it is good and biblical per Proverbs 6:6-11.  Young men and women alike need a plan for life, one that parents must shape when kids are young and that the church must also teach for those who are graced with strong, godly parents.  Children should not be told that they will necessarily be world-changers, as so many are today, but should be trained to be hard workers who labor for the glory of Christ the king (1 Corinthians 10:31).

If you want a cultural counterpart to the ennui and understandable despair of many Millennials–despite Malone’s over-confident assertions and willingness to laugh at the future–consider booming Asian economies like China’s and Japan’s.  They have their troubles too, but many Asian cultures are succeeding at education and a form of old-school character training where America and many European countries have moved away from these modes of flourishing. It’s fascinating how economic behavior reflects our core philosophical beliefs.

I feel for the Millennials.  They are struggling, many of them, and they do not have the robust worldview of biblical Christianity to sustain them.  If we as evangelicals have a cultural interest–and we surely do–our spiritual interest is greater.  We desire to reach these young men and women who are floundering, who perhaps look as though they are successful and confident, but who in reality face great uncertainty and bear great sin and may find solace and salvation only in Christ.

(Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath for New York magazine)

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