On the other hand, perhaps this generation can still come out as good, proper kvetches. Witness this popular parable making its way through corridors, water-coolers, pubs, and internet boards about Generation Y's situation on today's job market:
The older generations told us: "Study hard in high school, because you need to go to college. You don't want to be stuck flipping burgers when you get older, do you?"
Well we studied hard in high school, took out loans, went to college, and graduated.
Now the older generations tell us: "Get to work flipping burgers, you spoiled brats!"
This at least comes closer to identifying the real issue: everyone from the upper-middle class downwards has found themselves reduced to just doing whatever it takes to get by and pay their bills at the end of the month. With full irony intended, this is supposed to be how the poor live! But now everyone is poor, and Gen-Y's 85% rate of moving back in with our parents post-graduation can only hide this fact for so long.
On top of this, Gen Y faces the same challenges as every previous generation, and the same issues still exist within our society as always have. Beyond finding a first job and moving out, switching from a mere job to a meaningful career has never been easy, or even possible for everyone. Building real, lifelong friendships has remained a time-consuming task, now made more difficult by more and more frequent moves between locations. That same factor certainly doesn't help in finding love and marrying. In short, every generation has always had to struggle to change over from staying above water today into advancing the state of tomorrow. For Generation Y, today's difficulties come on top of yesterday's debts, and tomorrow often seems to recede from view.
What can be said to these kids? Stop sucking it up! They need to ask, why are they not too good to flip burgers for $8/hour six hours a day and then cross the street to make sandwiches for $10/hour another six hours? Are they not educated people, in fact the most educated generation of youth ever seen in America? Do they not have skills? Do they not have hopes and dreams they actually want to fulfill? Does McDonald's not receive sixteen job applications for every opening they publicize?
It also bears asking: why should everyone spend so much effort begging for jobs, anyway? In better economic times, jobs are what people complain about. Matt Groening penned Work is Hell during the "morning in America" Reagan-Bush years. Mike Judge filmed Office Space during the '90s tech boom. From the 2000s finance- and housing-driven bubble-boom arose the two Britcoms The IT Crowd and The Office, both of which consisted mainly of humor about the sheer purposeless absurdity of the modern workplace. Today, in the Second Great Depression (economically) and the Second Gilded Age (politically), people spend their complaints asking why they can't have what previous generations complained about? How does this not seem wrong? Why should everyone not try to make things genuinely good rather than begging, bowing and scraping to get them back to being merely bad?
In addition, what was up with that epithet from the parable earlier, "spoiled brats"? What's with calling the Millenials a generation of narcissists or "Entitlement Generation" or the "Me Generation"? One could simply say it's crotchety old people and be done with it, but that doesn't really cover the whole truth. In this writer's humble opinion, the nasty epithets of "spoiled" or "entitled" arise mainly from politics and mainly from the political Right, particularly the neoliberal wing and the wing dedicated to perpetuating the Protestant Work Ethic well into the era of the post-scarcity economy.
The current economy produces enough stuff to effectively abolish want via wealth redistribution without putting anyone else to work. Skeptics can check the GDP-per-capita numbers and then multiply by four to get the "equal wealth share" for an average family... it's about $180,000/year! If businesses can sustain current production with current employment levels, this all checks out. Even so, many people seem to feel they'll be damned if the youth don't have to work like homesteading farmers, and if the country has fewer jobs than people, the youth ought just work even harder to snag one, and then work even harder than that on the job itself. For some people, toil and stress and difficulty are not unwanted, but occasionally necessary, intrusions into a happy life. They are moral ideals to uphold and extol: not work to fill an economic demand, but simply toil, as such and for its own sake. Far from a mere work-ethic any longer, this is the Great American Blood Sacrifice.
After all, who gets to "receive something for nothing", to take home anything their capitalist benefactors did not voluntarily grant them on the free labor market? Only capital owners and war veterans. One of these literally sacrificed their own blood for the country. The other "owns" the presumed sacrifice made by their former self, or their ancestor(s), or someone else entirely. For everyone else, the merest survival must be "earned" through toil for wages. The desired income scarcely even matters, because the full-time work-week has a length set by the employer. A worker can work part-time and usually receive less than necessary to live, but most part-time jobs pay wages that only become living wages at full time, if that. Or a worker can work full-time-plus in a "real job" (where informal surveys indicate the 40-hour work-week is dead and unpaid overtime is now the norm in both white-collar and blue-collar settings). Either way, the employer sets the income they are willing to give out, and the worker just keeps on going until (in order of increasing likelihood) they either succeed and get rich, find the means to eventually retire, go postal, wind up burned out or depressed, quit to in hopes of finding a better job, or just plain get laid off. Add on student loans, underwater mortgages from the bubble, or sky-high rents from the bubble's aftermath, and yet more evidence wracks up: the 1%, gods of American capitalism, demand everyone pay their tithe in blood for daring to live in this great nation.
Here we find the origins of the notion of "entitlement". Anyone who questions the necessity of the blood-sacrifice is considered "entitled", while those gods invented "entitlement". They have spent a good long time charging the youth with "entitlement" in order to extend and enlarge their blood-sacrifice. They benefit from the side-effects of the yelling, too: their sympathizers defend of their class system, defend their ownership of the political and cultural power structure, and ultimately defend their profit from everyone's labors.
If, however, their view is accepted, that their immense cash and capital holdings are their own blood, sweat and tears, wiped from their John Galtian brows, then a certain slang saying undergoes an interesting change. Hip-hop stars from the black and Latino working classes can now join with their white, corporate-born-and-bred comrades in wealth to say, "It's all about the sweat and tears!", which has a much nastier ring to it than referencing Benjamin Franklin.
So how did America's youth get here? Those wild-eyed guys on street corners with far-left newsletters have been telling everyone for a while: neoliberalism, Reagan, Thatcher. What are those guys talking about? Well, the program of neoliberalism has always been to demolish the mixed economy and replace it with a purely capitalist economy. Neoliberals claimed the world had never before seen a really purely capitalist economy, and it would work much better than what was already in place. It sounded like a truly radical "first" for the world: once capitalist economies were mixed with pre-capitalist ones, and then they were mixed with socialist economies, right?
Wrong. America tried pure capitalism once. Well, twice actually. Once it was called the Gilded Age. It ended in what was then known as the Great Depression... until the next time it was tried, which resulted in what is now known as the Great Depression. This current time has some features of each, actually. From the original Gilded Age, today gets its public corruption and graft, its barely-existent labor laws, its long work hours (as anyone with more than one job can attest), its lack of health-and-safety protections on the job, its corporatization, and its mechanization. Today does not have its rising productivity-per-hour, its rising wages, its growing middle class and its increasing national wealth. Instead of those Gilded Age features, today has some things from the Great Depression: inferior per-hour productivity, falling and stagnant wages, a shrinking middle class, rampant unemployment, and falling national wealth. This generation is being had, coming and going.
But back to those much-maligned, "mixed economies". What did that mean? It mostly meant that there were things to do with one's life other than profit-making capitalist enterprises. Even in capitalist countries, those who could not find happiness doing their life's work in profit-making capitalist endeavors could traditionally join the non-profit sector of the economy. This sector included such various fields as some of the fine arts, the charity sector, religious functions, academia, caring for the natural or cultural commons, and public service. There's an irony in neoliberalism's destruction of these sectors: the health of this sector shunted those discontented with capitalist production into happy and successful lives a healthy distance away from it. If only they could have become successful public schoolteachers, locomotive engineers, professors of ecology, or children's' public television producers, many Occupy Wall Street protesters would have stayed out of the revolutionary ranks.
However, neoliberalism and neoliberals have made a continuous effort, for decades, to demolish the non-capitalist sector. Their most common means: budget cuts to everything. In the decades of the neoliberal program, budget cuts have hit all the sectors dependent on non-market-based income: the arts, the commons, public workers and academia. Through these cuts, often called "austerity measures", and through the generalized attack on the working class, the starvation has been made to trickle through to much of the charity and non-profit religious sectors. New ministers can no longer be assured of a parish; young scientists finish their PhD with no laboratory waiting for them. Homeless shelters have to turn away as many as they can bed down for a night, and they lack the funding to purchase more space. Public workers find themselves taking cuts to their pay, taking furloughs to their hours, and often just simply laid off -- even while public support and public services become more necessary to the citizenry.
The irony, of course, is that these are precisely those individuals most revolted by capitalism and most attracted by efforts to replace it. Neoliberals spent four decades bulldozing the walled garden of the nonprofit sector. Now, they're quickly finding that the former residents, stuck under the rule of markets, will riot and revolt to restore the dignity and humanity of their former occupations and everyone else's. Welcome to Occupy, population: everyone who wants their life back.
Thus we arrive at the beaten-down Generation Y, in fact the beaten-down America. Youth from a decade ago at least managed, through reading novels like "Fight Club" or listening to punk-rock music, to fantasize about overthrowing the capitalist system and living as they pleased. Now, Generation Y begs for opportunities to earn a minimal living, despite the most education in US history. All hopes and dreams have now taken back-seat to simply "earning" a living and struggling to survive.
The point of civilization has always been to collectively move everyone up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Human beings crave to rise up from merely animal beings to the higher state attained by our ancestor Adam: intellectual and spiritual beings. Such beings, in contrast to animals, live to participate in the continual co-creation of the world. By doing so, they gain fulfillment.
Yet today's youth find themselves again and again reduced to living like animals, for survival only. By the present system of property and its entitlement to never-ending additional property, the system of rent and profit, endless numbers are denied the means to keep themselves independently alive. By the propertization and privatization of essential human needs, Generation Y has found itself indentured servants even as its life has just begun. By the perversion of every societal system into the service of privilege and property, even those able to materially survive remain spiritually crushed. The vast majority of the population are kept barely able to live as animals and made unable to live at all as humans.
None of this, however, has lifted the pressures and burdens of their elders' expectations from the Millenial's backs. As students, they were under pressure to study a "hot" or in-demand field, earn excellent grades and academic honors, and find competitive internships -- when even all that will now only just open the door to a middle-class existence. Many are about 20 years old, with student-loan debt, in a world where wages have stagnated, housing prices have soared out of reach, and so-called entry-level jobs require several years of experience.
They have been groomed since a very early age to "make something of themselves" via study and hard work. They have also been groomed to believe that they should "follow their dreams" or do what interests them in life. It makes a kind of sense: so much of life will be spent in work these days that one might as well work in something one enjoys. The problem is that at each stage of the pipeline, the last stage's achievements stop mattering. Childhood performance no longer matters in high-school and the college admissions race. High-school achievements no longer matter in college. Undergraduate achievements no longer matter in graduate school. Whether someone takes graduate school or hits the working world directly after undergraduate, they find the same thing: their academic achievements, from earliest childhood to last year, no longer mean anything at all except possibly some words on a resume that an employer might perhaps want to see and a colossal debt hanging over their heads. The whole train-wreck finally crashes, its unstoppable built-up mass of spiritual inertia hitting the heart all at once.
When someone makes a loan, they expect to receive interest payments. When they buy a stock, they expect to receive dividends. When they buy a house, they want its value to go up. The Millenial Generation, the most educated generation of the century, went into their educations having been told and taught that they were going into an investment that required hard work, not some frivolous waste of time and money. To find that 8-13 years' worth of effort, high school to enter undergraduate and then sometimes undergraduate to enter graduate, no longer matters... is to be told that the largest investment of time and money made in one's life will pay back nothing. As much as many decry the "entitlement" of Millenials walking out of college wanting good jobs, this country has always considered it sensible to expect an investment to pay off. Seeing this dissonance as dissonance will bring an older adult a long way towards understanding the post-college Millenial funk.
Welcome to the economy the Millenials now inhabit. For half their lifespans, through late childhood and into early adulthood, there has not been a year without public-sector cutbacks and private-sector lay-offs, often affecting their parents. Since the Great Recession began, the trend has accelerated: lay-offs have come in droves, even for people who worked hard their whole careers. This new economy, this new normal, has exterminated entire professions and eliminated entire career paths. Once, for example, a fledgling journalist could have started as a copy-writer and worked his way up to a reporting position with a beat in the time it would have taken to get today's formal schooling. Today there simply are hundreds fewer newspapers, and what few positions remain require a four-year degree and work experience and don't always even pay wages. The Millenials have witnessed the rapid detachment of contribution to the world, especially fulfilling contribution to the world, from living-wage jobs and in fact from jobs paying anything at all. Rather than go on strike as a generation, they have responded with waves of volunteering. Millenials volunteer to fill a requirement, for the cause itself, to finally feel good about themselves and their work, and sometimes even "volunteer" because the work no longer pays anything.
Here we draw closer to the real wellspring of the "entitlement mentality" in Generation Y, a powerful change in attitude. Millenials no longer value jobs or money as greatly, because they see "success" as essentially fleeting. Sure, they'll congratulate someone who gets a prestigious or high-paying job; sure, they'll understand why that person can't come out to a social get-together. They don't really consider that absence-for-work a very positive thing, though. They certainly don't believe that someone's outcomes on the Wheel of Fortune should totally determine their lifestyle, or their ability to have a lifestyle at all. In some ways, they don't even equate their job with their career: they believe it entirely possible for someone to make their major accomplishments outside the framework of paid wage-work. Maybe they'll get paid, maybe they won't. The new credo is: you probably didn't have any money yesterday, you might not have a job tomorrow, but friends and family are forever.
It will seem strange to members of post-World War II American generations, especially those known for their economic success like the Baby Boomers. It will probably seem somewhat akin to the "slacker" attitude displayed by Generation X back in the day. However, it won't and doesn't seem abnormal at all to people from other times or other countries. Only post-war America has ever had the land and the prosperity to enforce a social rule that every adult moves away from home and devotes their life to work when they grow up. In all other countries, living with family for extended periods of time has remained the centuries-old norm, due to either economic volatility or simple lack of real-estate, and in other cultures, there were other ways to contribute to society besides joining the wage-labor force. Recent centuries have added the option of living with a group of friends for the same benefits, although the demands of relocation for work have often put a crimp on that. Some parts of America had a housing bubble that popped, but in today's major cities with jobs and opportunities, real-estate and housing shortages remain a fact of life. The extended family and the extended friend-network have become, once again, the building-blocks of life.
All this rubs Millenials the wrong way because they know, intuitively, that even with America's mediocre productivity-per-hour for an advanced economy, this country produces enough goods and services to house, feed, clothe and medicate everyone, and that it easily could if it didn't waste its national wealth on stupid, graft-ridden wars. Again, the GDP-per-capita is about $45,000/year; that's $45,000 for every American every year if distributed equally. One person living alone may have to stretch a little if they live in the country's most hyperbolically expensive areas, but for a married couple it would be $90,000/year and for a family of four it would be $180,000/year. Many who've thought about this sort of economic fact have wondered why America doesn't have an extensive welfare program or even a basic-income grant. Most clamor for universal health-care to eliminate the Job with Benefits as a necessity for healthy life (enabling non-benefitted jobs to become living jobs). Almost everyone wishes they could spend less time working and more time with friends and family (unless, of course, their coworkers are their friends, which happens), especially those who've heard of the amount of job-secured vacation time available in every other Western nation without any apparent loss of economic strength. At the same time, neoliberal Republican politicians have spent the entire lifetime of Generation Y so far demonizing even the slightest steps towards these programs as "socialist". This is from whence comes the rising "socialism" of the Millenials, which is not so much a studied Marxism or a renewed New Left radical postmodernism as a simple desire to live without capitalism's gun to their heads (literally so, in the case of young minorities who must fear the police in their daily lives). That is what they feel they are entitled to: not starving or going homeless due to lack of something so fickle as money. Put another way, Generation Y wants life without debt-slavery or wage-slavery, as was actually accessible to their parents and predecessors.
Instead, Millenials see their country turning into Boxer the Horse from Animal Farm, an eternal sucker of a worker. To every order from Above, it responds dutifully: "I will work harder." Boxer kept doing that every time he received a new order, until eventually he dropped dead and got turned into glue. In the present economy, the owning class is selling off much of the major business infrastructure and many of the major institutions in America to its cohort in other countries; some metaphor to Boxer the Horse should suggest itself to the astute reader.
And while America works itself to death paying off bankers' bad bets, other countries have rapidly developed and improved to offer better living conditions and economic security. Brazil is now a powerhouse. Israel boasts a Silicon Wadi second only to the original Valley itself. New Zealand has made itself a popular destination for the film industry (as witnessed by Oscar-winner The Lord of the Rings), and Australia has turned its wealth of land and minerals into the Western Frontier of the 21st century. All these countries have universal health care, stronger labor laws, cheaper and better education, better maternity/paternity policies, healthier non-capitalist sectors, and more legislated vacation time than America, despite two of them being technically poorer than America. Thus, many Millenials fantasize about leaving the United States for some dreamed-of better place; a fair few have concrete plans to do so. Why shouldn't they leave? After all, if the neoliberals are right, if there's no collective project of "America" to which everyone contributes and from which everyone can expect "entitlements", then what can Millenials possibly abandon by moving somewhere with better prospects? Without a national community built on citizenship rather than ownership, whither the country? Without the country, whither patriotism?
The members of Generation Y were raised by their elders to cultivate themselves as human beings, as in the samizdat anecdote above about university education. Now, instead of putting their humanity to good use, they're studying more and longer, working more and longer, all earlier and earlier into their lives, to earn stagnating wages with stagnating benefits and policies on leisure hours and vacation time that make unemployment look attractive. The previous post-war generations gradually grew up from a leisurely childhood into a working adulthood, with labor protections from society (government, unions, religious institutions, local communities) to support them through adult life. They could at least do some productive good for society, if not fulfill their dreams, and from early working adulthood on they at least had the opportunity to advance, build wealth, build a family, and enjoy life. For all else that people reject about the stiflingly conformist, hideously discriminatory Pleasantville America of the 50s-70s boom, a median worker could once buy a small house, support a non-working spouse, raise 1-3 children, and eventually retire.
The Millenials can treat almost none of these things as givens. They have been working, academically or professionally, since their early teenage years when their parents taught them to do what it takes to survive in "the globalized economy", and they no longer have much any labor protections. They lack any infrastructure for achieving their dreams or for doing good for society, and they don't have the economic opportunities to advance, build wealth, secure enough of a living to start a family, or enjoy life.
Living through all these events and seeing what is happening, the Millenials have responded by questioning many long-held beliefs and shifting to an old-new set of values, which they think better suit the world in which they live. Far from an Entitlement Generation, Generation Y has turned into Generation Asking Why, and has a right to it.