Millennials will be okay

Things look bad now, but Millennials possess traits that makes them better equipped to have a happier life than previous generations.

  • Photograph: Drew Reynolds

    Jill Johnson, 29 �There are a lot of motivated people throughout the world, and I am just one of them.�

  • Photograph: Drew Reynolds

    Gregory Gurley, 28 �This situation keeps you living within your means.�

  • Photograph: Drew Reynolds

    Jeff Miller, 28 �Everyone I did AmeriCorps with pretty much either did it again for another year or went back home to figure out what�s next.�

  • Photograph: Drew Reynolds

    Deb Pressman, 28 �I am not anywhere near buying a home or having a family, and it�s depressing to me.�

Photograph: Drew Reynolds

Jill Johnson, 29 �There are a lot of motivated people throughout the world, and I am just one of them.�

In 1998, the first class of the Millennial generation* marched into the halls of higher education, in the midst of a booming dot-com economy that seemed to offer endless possibilities. And at age 30, I marched right in with them, starting my first year as a fiction-writing professor at Columbia College.

[* The Pew Research Center calls any American born from 1981—2000 a Millennial. But culturally speaking, if you’re not yet in college, I can’t identify with you as a Millennial. As in, if you’re currently (unironically) into Nick Jonas, you’re not facing the same kinds of problems we are.]

I had graduated with a liberal-arts degree from Columbia eight years earlier, in the heat of the Gulf War recession. Spikes in oil prices meant hefty inflation; unemployment hit 5.6 percent (creeping up to 7.5 percent by 1992); and, like most Gen Xers, I didn’t expect my dream job to go hand-in-hand with my diploma. My generation grasped a certain reality that we needed to take the first job we were offered out of college—even if it was at Kinko’s or Bennigan’s—and deal with it. We compensated in other ways: Many Gen Xers stuck in a boring 9–5 played in a band on the weekends, or wrote a zine* for their friends. Still: I was going to get paid for my writing, whatever it took.

[*When in doubt, pull up Urban Dictionary. “Zine is short for fanzine. For all intensive [sic] purposes, a zine is a cheaply made, cheaply priced publication, often in black and white, which is mass-produced via photocopier and bound with staples…Have you read the latest issue of my zine? I have an in-depth interview with the singer from Pernicious Crotch Fungus!”]

And so I waited tables at the Art Institute of Chicago during the day (one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, incidentally). At night, I served hors d’oeuvres at private, tony parties at the museum, where the elite of the elite sipped Champagne with a Matisse, Monet and Manet backdrop.

During that time, I interned at radio stations, and at newspapers. I moved to Hollywood with silver screen hopes and, instead, slung hamburgers to the likes of Charles Nelson Reilly*.

[* Who?]

I waited tables in L.A. and Chicago for six years. I interned in an advertising department at one newspaper just to make connections on the editorial side. It took time and a lot of hustle, but freelance writing assignments followed, and soon staff writing positions came my way. I wasn’t making much money, but I was writing.

Today, I am an author and a journalist. And at Columbia, I’m instructing young adults who are tumbling into the job market in the depths of another recession—one that’s “deeper, longer and significantly worse” than any recession in recent history, says Charles Wheelan*, a senior lecturer of public policy at the University of Chicago. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 9 percent unemployment for the nation in October 2011, while student-loan debts are at record-breaking levels of $25,000 and more.

[* I get Wheelan on the phone and ask, “Am I screwed?” His response: “You’re totally screwed.”]

The economy may take years to turn around. The effects are going to leave a deep imprint on the Millennials, most of whom will be getting married and starting families later, and quite possibly never owning homes. But from my experience teaching them, the youth of this generation are feisty. They’re ready to take action when they’re angry. They’re going to pursue their passions no matter what. And, twentysomethings? Great Recession or not, these traits ultimately will make you happier and better-adjusted than my Gen X brethren.

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