About a year after I graduated from a private liberal arts college, I found myself making small talk with my dentist as he scraped the gunk off the sides of my teeth. Thousands of dollars in debt but richer one bachelor’s degree in English, I was still young enough to have this visit covered by my mother’s insurance. All it would cost was this rich white man’s probing tools and questions about what school I attended, what I studied, and what I was doing now.
“I’m a busser,” I said, staring up at the overhead light, “at that sushi restaurant down the street.”
My dentist turned away from the shiny, sanitized tool tray. “That’s what you’re doing with that expensive degree?” He laughed, reaching his hands inside my mouth. “Bet your parents are real proud!”
Such boomer-era derision for how I supported myself was not unfamiliar to me, though I had never heard it expressed so bluntly. And in fact, it was a feeling I had internalized years earlier. With every new job, it reminds me that I should be ashamed to be doing that with my expensive degree, be it bussing, dog walking, office work, being a personal assistant, or freelance writing. Every time a former professor or an old classmate with wealthy parents would come in and see me bent under a table, picking sticky rice out of the carpet, the voice would roar in my head. It turns out, the voice, like my dentist, is an asshole. And it’s wrong.
The struggle to support oneself and its accompanying anguish are nothing new. But there’s something uniquely maddening about the financial anxiety Millennials must wrestle with today. It’s a pervasive worry that cuts across the VICE youth survey, in which 43 percent of respondents said they feel the future holds less job stability, while 48 percent think current social class standings will remain the same, and 66 percent think we’ll experience more economic problems, including financial crises.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. High-paying jobs that allowed for a life of luxury became the goal, while the celebrity deification of people like Donald Trump, then the scion of a New York City real estate fortune, hit overdrive.
“Not since the 1920s, a decade that these Teflon Years of the 1980s increasingly resemble, has the nation witnessed so much common celebration of greed and selfishness,” wrote the journalist Haynes Johnson for the Washington Post in 1987. “Now, as then, the country has been encouraged to follow the example of big-deal operators, get-rich-quick schemers, inside traders, market manipulators, laissez-faire entrepreneurs in political and corporate life. Private gain has been accorded a higher value than public service. ‘Making it’ has been the era’s slogan.”
In the 1980s, children of middle- and upper-class families learned their wealth was deserved, while their lives functioned as carrots teasing the rest of our families along through thankless jobs with stagnant wages and scant benefits. Thus began a new era of prosperity gospel that preached the importance of only doing labor you’re passionate about. Years of inspirational biopics taught us that one’s dream job is the only one that really matters, regardless of whether it pays your bills. “I urge you to work in jobs that you love,” Warren Buffett told University of Florida Business students in 1998. “I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume.” Buffett said this while being the world’s fourth wealthiest person, worth more than $33 billion. Today, Buffett is worth around $90 billion.
"In the 1980s, children of middle- and upper-class families learned their wealth was deserved, while their lives functioned as carrots teasing the rest of our families along through thankless jobs with stagnant wages and scant benefits. Thus began a new era of prosperity gospel that preached the importance of only doing labor you’re passionate about."
This was the credo I was raised on: Work hard, go to school, and you too can do what you love and make a reasonable living. Then, in 2008, my freshman year in college, the economy collapsed. The Great Recession served to equalize my generation somewhat—some of the kids I envied for their annual trips to summer camp are now adults working alongside me for tips by the hour, ending one gig and going to the next. But ten years and counting and the national lie the financial crisis exposed is just as raw. Today, the parents and grandparents of Millennials, who were brought up on ideals of self-determination and class ascendance, are still riding on the fumes of “pride in a good honest day’s work” that were let loose by the collective misery of the Great Depression. And not only that, they’re also judging younger generations for their choices, as if we all still live in that same world.
Part of being a “young person” today is fully coming to grips with the falsehood that there is anything promised to people who work hard, toe the line, or risk it all to “follow their dreams.” And now, not only are we ridiculed for failing to accumulate wealth, we’re also called out for choosing jobs not deemed “important” or “rewarding.” Earning $8.80 an hour at the sushi restaurant, I was doing so with a fancy degree that in my dentist’s mind, at least, should have been the key to a rewarding life’s work.
This all sounds dire until one looks at the many ways Millennials are turning this disillusionment with the consumerist American Dream into action. Across the country, we are forming unions, running for public office on platforms of economic justice, and pushing for a culture that honors the dignity of the working class. Our immediate challenges remain: credit card and student loan debt, skyrocketing housing costs, prohibitively expensive access to medical care. But perhaps the next generation has a better shot at economic justice without the individualistic fantasies that were considered dogma in the past. It was in my bussing job, after all, that I learned to take pride in the fact that I can work to pay any of my bills, period. It’s a continuous grind beset with injustice on all sides but, like my parents and my grandparents and our ancestors, we endure.
I could have explained as much—economic injustice, classism, resilience—to my dentist, if I had the time or energy. Plus, his hands were in my mouth. Afterward, I took the bus to work and thought about how my job doesn’t dictate the amount of respect I deserve. My advice: Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.