We've heard the message loud and clear: If you don't want to be poor, you have to be rich.
In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.
A new study on different generations' priorities does not make Millenials look good. The report from the American Psychological Association [PDF] claims we are selfish, fame-seeking, politically disengaged, and don't give a shit about the environment. We also want to be rich. A stunning 75 percent of Millennials said that being wealthy was very important to them, compared to 45 percent of baby boomers and 70 percent of Generation X.
Contrary to middle-aged pundits' rants, Millennials are not inherently more selfish or materialistic than previous generations. It's just that we are seeing the middle class vanish before our eyes. Even before the recession, we heard the message loud and clear: If you don't want to be poor, you have to be rich.
I'm a progressive journalist with a strong belief in equality instilled by leftist middle-class parents, and even I find myself hoping I'll be rich one day. It's not because I care about mansions and baller outfits and luxury vacations (although having a personal masseuse and a lifetime supply of plane tickets would be nice). In the last decade, I've watched the cost of rent and food and health care skyrocket while wages stagnate and social safety nets erode. There are fewer and fewer middle-class role models—either you're wealthy or you're struggling with your bills. Especially in major cities, it seems that making six figures is the only way to ensure a comfortable existence. Of course we want to be rich; in the absence of stable middle-class jobs, what's the alternative?
True, not every Millennial's aspirations are shaped by the scope of income inequality and the rise of privatization—some young people are certainly blinded by the wealth of Snooki or Mark Zuckerberg. But reality TV stars and wunderkind success stories are alluring precisely because of our pervading economic reality. Even those of us who aren't activists and know nothing about economics have been picking up clues everywhere—from our pension-free parents, our ballooning student loan statements, the foreclosure signs on our block. Half of us predict that Social Security and other safety nets will be gone by the time we need them. We've been told by hip-hop songs and conservative politicians alike that nobody is going to help us succeed but ourselves. It makes total sense that our generation is entrepreneurial and individualistic. Our culture has taught us that "hitting it big" is the only guaranteed way to have a satisfying life.
These are the kinds of messages that discouraged youth activism in the Bush era and caused us to turn inward—until the recession made things even worse. The silver lining of the past few years is that tough times have accelerated people's sense of outrage, especially young people's. In the past year, we've gotten angry about the status quo both in the streets and on the internet; because the APA report only includes research conducted through 2009, the Millennials surveyed were free of Occupy Wall Street influence. The dysfunction of the same system that makes us wish for wealth motivated us to flood the streets and camp in parks for the duration of last fall.
When it comes to our desire for riches, the study's findings are already somewhat outdated. The Great Recession has and will continue to profoundly shape the course of our lives professionally, personally, and philosophically. It will force us to entertain the flip-side of fortune—the very real possibility that we won't ever have a chance to get rich. The fantasy is still out there, but we're slowly bringing ourselves down to earth.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.