Not all millennials

March 23, 2019 (676 words) :: You'll find no shortage of articles on the proscribed economic prospects of millennials. It may be true for the majority, but if you're in the minority, it's confusing.
Tags: inequality, personal, the left

This post is day 82 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Short post today, on something I personally struggled with when I was first starting to develop inklings about the existence of political views outside the mainstream. When I started reading more political/economic criticism, one of the major threads I came across could be summarised as ‘generational generalisations’, mostly about millennials.

The headlines told one story: millennials are struggling to find stable jobs with health insurance, a career ladder and the chance to pay off their student loan debt. My own personal understanding of the world told another. This wasn’t something I worried about, personally, as someone who had previously been offered a 6-figure salary in tech and who had every reason to expect more of that in the future. Most of my friends weren’t in this boat, either - they had all ascended to the professional-managerial class, drawn into finance, tech, law, consulting, etc.

So who were these mythical millennials who were facing economic stagnation? I didn’t know them, so they must not exist. Or at least, the fears encoded in these anxious headlines must be overblown, I thought. These suckers were clearly foolish enough to study like literature or sociology or something when they should have just done STEM.

It took me a long time to realise that I was the one who was wrong - that I was living in a bubble, and just because I didn’t have firsthand experience of true precarity didn’t mean it didn’t exist, or wasn’t the norm for many people. It took a lot of leftist theory and news-reading and meeting new people to consider that the economy really wasn’t working for most people, and its relative functionality for myself was the exception, not the rule. That just because the system was working for me and the people I knew didn’t mean it was good.

I still don’t know if there was a moment, or a specific trigger, that got me to take the leap away from the comforts of smug privilege. I do remember a gradual build-up of guilt, though, a lot of which was brought on through interactions with gig economy workers. As much as I wanted to personally believe in the idea of meritocracy - mostly so I could believe that I deserved everything I got because I worked hard in school and did well on standardised tests - the empirical reality I observed was so skewed that I couldn’t find a way to legitimate it.

Even in the most cash-strapped phase of my life (as a bootstrapped startup founder) I never really had to think twice about, say, calling a Lyft or getting food delivered. I certainly never would have considered working for any of these platforms - the money wasn’t good enough to offset the lack of career progression or skill development. And yet there were people my age who had to, because they got a degree that the economy no longer deemed valuable, or because they weren’t able to complete their degree, and so they had to live with diminished economic prospects and, consequently, the narrowed autonomy associated with the low-wage jobs they did qualify for.

Some part of me really wanted to attribute this all to meritocracy: if I was doing well, then I must have earned it, etc etc. But that implied a certain faith in the system, and I was losing my faith after having spent several years witnessing firsthand the dysfunctional world of tech startups. So I started to wonder: what if the system wasn’t actually all that good? What if the allocation of wealth that we see today is actually really unfair and even immoral? What does that imply for what my political views should be, and, subsequently, how I should live my life?

I don’t really have an ending for this. All I can really say is that if you still believe the system works, maybe consider whether you’re missing part of the picture, and whether the people (maybe even your age!) in the missing part have a greater claim to moral rectitude than you do.

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