By this point, you’ve all visited the Secret Millennial Research Facility. There’s one right here at the Tang Center. You know, the one where they dangle the carrot on the stick and you run through the maze and at the end you get to choose an Xbox One or a U.S. Government Savings Bond worth $50. Remember how puzzled the guys in the lab coats were when you chose the console? I think I’ve figured it out what’s going on, and the news isn’t good.
All those questions about hooking up and getting high, all those choices they offered you between a suit and a hoodie, every time they asked you what you wanted out of life … that was all a setup. They’ve been using that data to write articles in major publications to scare your parents. They’ve been telling people that you’ll never get a job because you have no skills and no ambition. Apparently we’re all morally bankrupt and lazy and obsessed with technology. No, really, Google it. You don’t even have to search; just let autocomplete show you the way. We are already a lost generation.
You and I both know we millennials are not lazy. We do more in one day academically, socially and intellectually than many of our parents did in a week at our age. It’s expected of us because the tempo of our lives is faster. It may look to another generation as if we’re obsessed with technology because in that generation’s youth, obsession took a different form. Consider the industry panic that we’re not attracted to car ownership, which is costly, dangerous and unrewarding. Our parents couldn’t wait to pull out of the driveway in something that represented freedom and independence. We hold those feeling in our hands, in much smaller collections of glass and metal. We don’t have to worry about mileage.
You and I also know that our parents and grandparents reached for the carrot their whole lives, and most of them got to take a bite (cheap college, low unemployment, pensions). What’s left now is the stick. Some of our role models lost their jobs and homes, they allowed the erosion of the rights of labor, they crashed the market and cheerfully outsourced their own jobs. The idea of working for one company your whole life and retiring comfortably with the knowledge that you will be treated fairly (or that you ever were) has been a transparent falsehood for most of us for a long time. What we see is that we were raised by technology and proxy parents so that our folks could work too hard at jobs they hated to buy junk they couldn’t afford and live to be poor in “retirement.” What we see is a system desperate to lure us all in while it so clearly tumbles down.
So back at the lab, they haven’t improved on the carrot. They dangle before us traditional job satisfaction and homeownership, inefficient cars and isolated nuclear-family living. They show us how to button a shirt and tie a tie, and they throw their hands up in disgust when we choose the things that we know are less likely to betray us. We’re not the first generation of lab rats; we know we’re never going to get the carrot, and we have learned to fear the stick.
The trouble here is that the people who are clutching their pearls and clucking their tongues while reading the results of these data (mechanically extruded into clickbait by site after site) are going to decide whether we get jobs. We have to figure out how not to look lazy to them, how to do an impression of the responsible adults they assumed we’d somehow magically become, despite a rapidly shifting environment to which we have adapted that does not offer us the choice to live like those imaginary adults. We’ve been lent money that we can never pay back as part of training for jobs that no longer exist, and societal watchdogs are outraged when we don’t see the point in trying to pretend.
But sure, we’ll take those unpaid internships. Health insurance is a luxury, anyway. Oh, we understand that you’re not offering full time. We assumed we would need to work three jobs to survive. Adjunct professors aren’t eligible for union membership, we see. No problem there. Well, we know we can’t apply for the jobs we really want, because the men who hold them can’t afford to stop working. Ever. It’s fine, we’ll wait. And we’ll be so grateful. For the experience. The opportunity.
Here’s the plan, millennials: Go with it. Go along with the illusion that a temporary subsistence job or an underpaid position with high visibility really is a great opportunity. Anything less than abject humility will be construed as arrogance, so hold it in. Then immediately start selling out the generation younger than you. Those kids with their gadgets and their sexting. They’re so much more vapid than you ever were. They just don’t understand the value of hard work.
Bemoaning the projected failure of the next generation is always safe and popular, in every millennium. It proves you’re a grown-up.
“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
Cicero, c.40 B.C.E
A version of this article appeared in the Dec. 6, 2013 “Millennial” edition of the Daily Cal.