You might not know this just by looking at me, but I’m special. So special, in fact, that I can do anything – anything – I set my mind to. Don’t believe me? Ask any of my teachers or coaches from elementary school. They’ll tell you. Better yet, while you’re hanging around my old stomping grounds, check out the motivational posters plastered to the walls. Not only will you discover how special I am, you might just realize that you, too, can do anything you want. So long as you follow your heart and shoot for the stars and never give up, of course.
This is my primary thought process. At least, it is in the eyes of my elders. They believe that I, a millennial, am the result of too much babying and positive reinforcement. I shouldn’t have won anything just for showing up and participating, I have unreasonable demands of society, I’m a whiner, and mostly they believe that I better damn sure get off their lawn.
As I’ve come to understand, life was not always so rosy like it is for us debt-mired millennials. We don’t know how good we got it. Back in the day, you did whatever you could and you liked it, because that’s the only real option you had. If you didn’t like it, you’d buck up or find something else to do. Simple as that. The governing philosophy of life seemed to be a distillation of my parents’ dinner rules growing up: “If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.” The seeds of the future were watered with sweat and elbow grease, back then. Nowadays, it’s mostly temper-tantrum tears that till the soil, and even then we get frustrated and quit when a beautiful flower doesn’t instantaneously bloom.
All snark aside, I understand why some older folks feel like that. These are people whose childhoods frequently included taking care of family members young and old, learning through manual labor, and going across the world to fight in wars. While elements of an “old school” upbringing exist in my story, my childhood was basically going to school, finding ways to lie about not doing my homework, playing video games and watching cartoons. And for the record, I am in 100% agreement that I complain more than they probably did. Assuming they complained at all.
Since graduating college, I’ve had a slew of good and/or well-paying jobs, and I hated all of them. I’ve worked for politicians, for companies, and as a Special Education teacher. None of those gigs lasted more than a couple years before I called it quits. Like any career change, there were never any singular events that caused me to reset and restart. Life, as I’ve come to experience it, is not lived through Joycean epiphanies, but rather cascading realities that pile up until they are too suffocating to ignore.
I’ve been basically successful at every job I’ve had (told you I was special), and even at the lowest points of income, the pay was decent enough to sustain the lifestyle I wanted. The common denominator in all of my existential meltdowns has been as millennial as it gets – lack of “fulfillment.”
In politics, I grew tired of the rat race. The novelty of feeling important wore off when a legislative session came and went, and the most significant achievement from busting my ass was changing the state tree. Then, I knew the monotony and tedium of working in an office was not worth the witty bar banter of “political life,” even for someone as smitten with delusion as myself.
Then there was Apple. I can’t count the number of times we were told that getting hired at an Apple retail store was statistically less likely than getting accepted into Harvard – just the type of validation us millennials crave. The pay was good enough, the benefits were comprehensive, and it was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. I don’t think I ever drank the corporate Kool Aid, but I definitely sipped it recreationally; I parroted what I was told, and I was told that selling computers wasn’t transactional – it was transformational. I was changing lives one credit card swipe at a time. Eventually, though, I admitted the inescapable truth that all I was doing was selling shit to people who already wanted to buy it. By the end of my stint, I passed the time by finding ways to talk people out of purchases. “Which iPad is right for your 4 year old? Good question. I’d actually go with a book and a walk in the park. It’s way cheaper, way healthier, and can actually be considered parenting. Have a great day!”
Apple remained a part-time companion to my full-time foray into education. I taught 2nd grade, kindergarten, and middle school over the course of 4 years, with some ninth grade summer schooling thrown in there. Though my schedule was no joke, replete with full-time teaching, full-time grad school and part-time Appling, teaching checked off all the boxes at first. Did I feel important? You betcha. Was I changing lives? Ask some of my former middle-school students, who are now able to read this essay because of me. (Yes, I was). The money wasn’t great, but it was enough to live on my own with my fiancé and continue to make loan payments.
Alas, the tried and true narrative of turned-over teachers rings true for me, as well. Paychecks evaporated into Sallie Mae catchments, and the totality of my schedule started to take its toll. There was only so much bureaucracy I could handle, only so much documentation and paperwork I could tolerate, and only – you get the picture. The details of how and why I fell out of love with teaching are decidedly uninteresting, but suffice to say it didn’t take long before my daydreamed millennial yearnings turned into complaints that turned into quitting.
Now, I’m living and working in Korea. The thing is, an abundance of options is exactly what enables me to indulge in my professional and existential vicissitudes in a way that seems so…bratty. I am the inexorable destination point that was born from “If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.” It’s just that for me and my generation, there’s a whole lot more on the table to eat, so we can be – and we are – pickier.
That’s the irony behind our millennial whining; the sacrifices of our predecessors have completely empowered it.
Ask your grandparents or (if possible) their parents, and I would guess that almost uniformly they shared a similar goal: provide a better life for their kids. It was a lofty ambition, one that required a great deal of foresight and altruism. In my mind, those characteristics make them the greatest generations, more so than any military campaign. In order to actually provide a better life for their offspring, people living in those times often had to forsake things like “passion” and “fulfillment” for more pragmatic desires like “savings” and “food on the table.”
They were also bound by borders that no longer apply to us. Back in the day, the realities of your immediate geography weighed on you much more heavily than they do today. My grandmother, for instance, was born and raised in Iowa early in the 20th century. Take a guess what she did for a living. If you said something agrarian, you’re correct. If it weren’t for the Depression and the Dust Bowl and her father’s health issues, she would have likely stayed there. Point is, the idea of changing your entire life on a flight of fancy used to be exactly that – a flight of fancy. But now, it’s a very feasible, very possible reality.
As technology started to develop exponentially, the world flattened, and new paths of life were paved. Combined with the great sacrifices of our predecessors to provide better lives for us, life became a speedball of opportunity. And here we are today, surrounded by choices, and all the more mercurial for it.
I am not passing the buck here. I am wholly culpable for responding to life’s challenges with complaints. But I’m pretty certain that, if my parents and grandparents had the same bounty of options we have now, they would have complained at least as much as we do. Whining is a pretty natural affair, and one that is not foreign to the traditionally non-whiner generations; their complaints about how whiny we are fall firmly and ironically next to our complaints about, well, everything else.
Ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that most of us are a bunch of whiners. But I’m OK with that, and my Baby-Booming, Silent and Greatest Generation elders should be, too. Our ability to complain and be fickle about everything is a direct result of the sacrifices they made. They wanted to provide a better life for us, and they succeeded. Now we reap the fruits of their labor, and if they didn’t labor so damn much, perhaps there wouldn’t be so many fruits to choose from.
It’s easy for others to look down on our generation, and even easier for us to feel down about ourselves. We’re whiners, but I truly believe there is merit in our whining. If our prospects were no different than those of the previous generations, what was the point of their sacrifices? Our tendencies to complain subconsciously stem from a drive to honor their sacrifices by reaching greater heights than they were able to reach. Having higher expectations, even if they are artificially or overly high, is a natural byproduct of what our parents and grandparents stood for and worked toward. Our complaints validate their work, but complacency would be a disservice to them.
Perhaps this is not the future they imagined for us, but it is the future that happened nonetheless. And if they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it.