Letters: ‘Newton’s First Law of Motion Doesn’t Apply to Millennial Careers’

Readers discuss who—or what—is to blame for the economic insecurity young Americans face today.

College students and faculty protest at the state capitol in Sacramento, California, in 2011. (Max Whittaker / Reuters)

Millennials Didn’t Kill the Economy. The Economy Killed Millennials.

According to a new report by economists at the Federal Reserve, Millennials have consumption preferences similar to those of older generations, yet are less well off than members of earlier generations were at around the same age. The American system is working against Millennials, Derek Thompson wrote last week—and then blaming them for everything.

I am 34, which makes me an older Millennial, but a Millennial still. Like most other Millennials, I got a late start on my professional career. I double-majored in liberal arts in undergrad and got a full-ride scholarship to work on a graduate degree in history on my way to teaching at the college level. This was around 2009, when the economy was starting to fall apart. By the time I got out of my master’s program in 2011, higher education appeared to be in a shambles, and I realized that the “social contract” you mentioned—combined with the misguided advice I’d gotten in my youth that you can be whatever you want to be as long as you work hard, combined with that useless fluff mantra among Millennials that you should do what you love and find a way to get paid for it—had led me down a path (much like this run-on sentence) that was untenable. I abandoned the Ph.D. path and went home to Detroit (a real land of opportunity) to reevaluate my options.

Luckily for me, the magic of middle-class white privilege meant I had a connection at a U.S. automaker that got my foot in the door to a contract white-collar job, which became permanent after a year and a half of solid work. I’ve been a salaried employee here for the past three years, during which I have bought a house, had good insurance, and built up my savings a little bit. Other than my student loan and mortgage, I have zero debt. For a Millennial, that’s pretty damn good, and a relative rarity. Now, with the downturn coming and U.S. automakers announcing layoffs, I’ve been told seniority will be a major factor in determining who gets eliminated. So once again, Millennials, seemingly the promise of the future for any company, are the first to be sacrificed to protect Boomers’ and Gen Xers’ jobs. No idea what I will do after this, how I’ll keep paying the mortgage I just got. And I regret even more the huge student-loan bill I still have, despite paying on it for years.

Part of me feels like this is the punishment for the hubris of assuming that things that are going well will continue to go well. Newton’s first law of motion doesn’t apply to Millennial careers. Every foothold we get in the economy, and in society, is tenuous. Most of us came up through service-industry jobs, where the threat of firing is omnipresent, but I made the foolish mistake of getting comfortable in my cushy job, forgetting that as a Millennial, I was just as vulnerable as ever.

This is why we are frustrated with the modern economy. It’s not just the smug advice from Boomers and Gen Xers telling us we aren’t working hard enough or saving enough or being responsible; it’s knowing that they will actively throw us overboard at the first opportunity to protect themselves, as also evidenced by their behavior in national politics with regard to the environment and the immense national debt they’ve racked up. The Old Order doesn’t care about us. So why should we care about preserving it?

Name Withheld Upon Request
Detroit, Mich.

I’m 30 years old. A Millennial.

The American dream has turned into a list of possessions. One house. Two cars. One spouse. Two and a half children. A dog. The author of this article subtly, perhaps unconsciously, encourages this list and the “social contract” to which he refers by complaining that we got a bad deal because we don’t have what people say we should have. He implies that we should have and value what previous generations had and valued. He implies that our success and wealth as a generation are about material possessions. The author seems to take this Federal Reserve study and proclaim to the world that he is indeed righteously envious of his friend’s Instagram postings on food and travel. Despite being the most “educated” generation of Americans (let’s not confuse being educated with simply attending school), we are also the most diverse, the most traveled, and generally the most privileged. I guarantee that there is a huge statistical difference between the percentage of Millennials who studied abroad in college and the percentage who did so in our parents’ generation. Despite not owning houses and cars, we are outstandingly wealthy, though we hardly realize it. We can instantly video-call across the world for free. We no longer need to use CDs to play music; we just push a few buttons and stream it instantly. We can take online college courses and learn just about anything for free.

All that’s to say I’m tired of “It sucks to be a Millennial; let’s keep talking about it.” It’s old news. Let’s move on to something else.

Kyle Mayer
Hartford, Conn.

Mr. Thompson had an interesting factoid in his article: “Consumers ages 25 to 34 are spending less at traditional grocers than their parents’ generation did in 1990.” But he didn’t mention what I suspect is the main driving factor behind Millennials spending less at grocery stores: They aren’t having children.

Robert Bowden
Houston, Texas

I read your article and feel it articulates the current condition of the Millennial generation as far as their ability to have and grow their share of the economic pie goes. I would like to suggest that it is time for the Millennial generation to find its voice in the economy by reinventing what it means to unionize in a capitalistic environment.

Using social media, emails, and live gatherings, Millennials could create union-like groups without paid representatives or representative heads, staying a truly democratic voting group on issues that include wages and management decisions. They need only figure out how to create the organization that can pose the questions before the entire workforce, and point out peaceful action to achieve their goals.

I think it is the duty of journalists to remind this new generation that there is strength in finding your voice in a group and as a group. Otherwise, the disparity in the economy is going to keep growing, and the future for most will be, at best, one of just getting by, with more people giving up on their dreams.

Richard Carter
Marietta, Ga.

If it is wrong to simplistically blame Millennials for sabotaging our economy, it is also wrong to take responsibility away from them as they abandon historic American institutions. The truth is somewhere in between. The promise was never, If you go to college, you will get a good job. The promise was, If you go to college and work your derriere off, you might get a good job, if you are content to patiently parlay weaker jobs into better jobs, as has been done by all generations since time immemorial.

Millennials are not being forced into parents’ basements. Millennials lack the outlook that such lagging aspiration is unacceptable.

Dale Rosenberger
Darien, Conn.

I agree with the author that the American system has thrown us Millennials into debt, depressed our wages, kept us from buying our own homes, and then blamed us for everything. As a Millennial myself, I deal with these particular issues almost every day. I go to college to earn myself a degree, yet my paycheck is nothing like it had been for previous generations. To be able to afford going to college, I had to take out student loans, ultimately leading me into debt. As much as I would love to have my own apartment, I simply can’t afford it due to the real-estate market prices being so out of reach and unaffordable. If that is not simply enough, when interacting with certain individuals of previous generations I receive comments such as, Oh, it’s because of those pesky iPhones. This article has truly been very accurate.

Camila Elizabeth Rose
Student, Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, Fla.