Ok. If anyone out there is reading this who a) has a facebook or twitter account and b) is approximately 16-40 years old, you’ve probably stumbled upon this article recently.
I have a lot of friends who have posted it, most of whom I adore (sorry, Trev!) – but here’s the thing. On one hand: okay. Okay. I get it. Some of that shit is totally valid.
On the other: fuck you, guy.
In recent months, we’ve been subjected to a lot of vocal hand-wringing about this generation, not least of which was the Time Magazine article about the Millennial Generation. “They’re narcissistic. They’re lazy. They’re coddled. They’re even a bit delusional.”
Do I know folks in my age demographic who fit that description? Yes. Oh, hell yes. Who doesn’t? Someone please explain the concept of the ‘selfie’ to me again.
Do I know grown-ass adults who fit that description? Again: Hell yes. Meet my grandfather. My grandmother has cooked his breakfast every day for the past 50 years of their marriage. I adore him, but looking at the man who can’t put his pants on in the morning unless he knows someone else is already making the coffee and eggs: you want to tell me what, exactly again about my generation being lazy and coddled?
This argument is infuriating for the same reason younger generations have always been infuriated by the old trope of “In my day, we walked to school uphill and barefoot in the snow.” It’s horseshit, and we know it.
Do I think I’m a magical, special unicorn snowflake, destined for greatness? Eh. Not particularly. Wanna know what formed that opinion? I survived high school, got straight A’s, and didn’t make it, unlike a small handful of my peers, into the Ivy Leagues of my dreams. (Look, not to be that guy, but: perfect SAT verbal score, active involvement in community service organizations, years of community theatre and church leadership, lifeguard and swim instructor, peer mentorship groups, wrote for the yearbook. Like, you know, everyone else who applied to college in 2004.)
Ok. I shook it off. Went to a great school. Was truly challenged intellectually for the first time in my life, surrounded by other kids with similar backgrounds, all of whom had worked their ass off for years, most of whom astounded me with their drive, ambition, and natural talent. Incredible teachers. Terrific mentors. I was outpaced by many of them, and it made me work harder. I wouldn’t change a thing.
And let’s be real about college. Was I occasionally found drinking Bud Light at a frat party on a Saturday night? Fuck, yeah. We all did. You know what else I did? Graduated with honors from a top liberal arts college. Worked my ass off at my part-time job. Spent hours upon hours building skills that would translate to my future career.
I graduated in 2008. Remember 2008? Oh, right. The housing market collapsed. Global stock markets plummeted. The Great Recession happened. I had $25,000 of student loan debt and a liberal arts degree in English and Theatre.
In other words: Oh, Hey, Real World. I’m Katherine. I’m HERE! What’s that, you say? We’re all kinda fucked? Oh. Okay. Neat.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was hired after graduation for a yearlong apprenticeship at a theatre company, a job in my field that I desperately craved. I was paid $375/week plus health insurance. This whole story is a longer post for the future (hell, it’s probably a book), but here’s how I can sum it up best. On my very first day, my boss, a woman I admire and respect beyond measure, welcomed us. She smiled at our eager young faces seated around a conference table, in our best “first day of the rest of our lives” outfits, and said, “Okay. Here’s the deal. You all come from college environments where you have been told that you are the best and the brightest, and there’s some truth to that. You beat out 300 other applicants for this job. You get to be proud of that, for about four more seconds. Now welcome to the real world. No one here is going to pat you on the fanny and tell you when you do a good job. We’re going to call you out when you fuck it up instead. Got it? So – just don’t fuck it up, ever, and you’ll do just fine.”
It was harsh. It was also the best advice I’ve ever received.
I worked my ass off for that company for a year. Did I fuck it up sometimes? Yeah. Absolutely. I made tons of mistakes. You know what it taught me? How to grow up. How to take responsibility for my actions, especially when something was my fault, and even when it wasn’t. It taught me to budget my finances. It taught me how to slog through the worst days of demoralizing gruntwork. It taught me how to survive on peanut butter sandwiches.
And here’s where it gets really interesting. After that year ended, I pursued my dream job. Four years later, here’s the payoff: I am a fairly respected costume designer in the regional theatre market of the city of Philadelphia. I’m doing what I set out to do, and that feeling is incredible. I have received accolades from my peers, from national press, from whatever fucking internet publications care about what I do and want to nominate me for things. That’s fucking AWESOME. I love that I am my own boss, that I run my own small business, which is simply myself and my trusty sewing machine. I love that I pay my own health insurance and cell phone bill. I design 15 or more shows a year. I rarely have a day off. I dabble in graphic design on the side. I help run a small theatre company. I pick up odd jobs where I can find them. I mostly love it.
And here’s where it sucks: if I’m lucky, I can make about as much money as I did at that first job right out of college.
And here’s where it royally sucks: If I’m incredibly lucky, I can go back to grad school, accumulate more student debt, and pray that someone in my field with a cushy university job dies so I can take over their gig.
Because until that happens, the freelance thing is kind of my best option.
And while I’m still freelancing here, I’m never going to make more than 25 grand a year. I broke 21 last year – the best of my career so far – and my accountant just shook her head in depressive dismay at my shock and delight.
Wanna know where 25 grand a year gets me? Not all that far, once you factor in car payments and student loan payments and rent and groceries and insurance.
Okay, you say, but: you chose to pursue your dream job! You must have known it was going to be hard, forever and ever! You chose to smack the label of ‘artist’ on yourself; surely you must have anticipated some hardship!
Yeah. I sure did.
On one hand: Fuck yeah, I did. I’m a rebel artist warrior! I’m following my passions! I’m living my dreams!
On the other hand: What the fuck am I doing with my life?
And on still yet another hand: Okay. Then you tell me. If I’m never going to make enough to live comfortably and I’m willing to change that: you just point me towards the jobs I should be applying for instead.
I’m good at a lot of things. Those things aren’t STEM fields. I’m not good with numbers. I’m not good with science. I’m not good with technology or banking or computers or software engineering.
I’m a good designer. I’m a good teacher. I’ve recently discovered that I’m not a half-bad writer.
Which, I’m afraid to inform you as well as myself, simply aren’t skills that are prized at this particular time in American history.
Where does this leave me?
Fuck if I know.
On the whole, I’m happy.
On the whole, I like my life.
On the whole, I’m proud of my achievements and I’m going to keep going, because what the fuck else am I going to do.
I exist in a world in which I don’t understand what a 401K is all about.
Social Security will not likely exist by the time I will need it.
I will never have a pension.
I’ve never even filed for unemployment. Because as a freelancer, I’m never in one place long enough to qualify.
This is not unique to my job description.
This is unique to my generation.
I live in a world in which the teachers in the city of Philadelphia are on strike because their budget issues are so rampantly unresolved that they are returning to work without contracts, paper, or desks. I live in a world where we’re slashing budgets so that the kids of the next generation won’t know a childhood with art or music classes.
I’m a woman in a generation fighting insane battles for reproductive rights that we didn’t even know until recently that we needed to be fighting, because we had simply assumed that we had already won them.
I live in a world in which we have a black president and yet we say hateful racist shit on Twitter when an Indian-American woman takes the Miss America crown. I live in a world in which we give a fuck about Miley Cyrus.
I live in a world in which we perpetuate the unpaid intern system.
I live in a world in which, since 1979, the average American worker has seen a 75% increase in productivity, and yet wages remain flat.
I live in a world where the top 1% of earners have seen their income quadruple since that exact same year.
I live in a world that simply seems too crazy for me to handle some days. I live in a world that sometimes makes me simply want to hide under the covers and not come out until it’s fixed.
And here’s what’s super fucked up:
I live in a world in which I still believe there is hope for the future.
If I’m a special fucking unicorn, and everyone in my generation is a special fucking unicorn, then okay, we all are special fucking unicorns, and I know that’s an oxymoron, but I can’t help but think that just one of those special fucking unicorns is going to figure out how to fix this mess. One of those special fucking unicorns is going to cure cancer or become the next president or write the next great American novel, or figure out how to fix the fucked-up-ed-ness of everything my generation is currently dealing with.
And if you do, Special Fucking Unicorn I Have Yet To Meet, I sincerely salute you.
I might not have retirement savings, or even enough to cover next month’s rent, but you bet your ass I’m going to put some money aside and buy you a beer.