I recently had someone very close to me ask this question in regards to taking a job at Starbucks. They’ve been serially unemployed and are getting desperate. Many of my friends are in similar positions: they work in retail, food service, temp positions, or are serial interns. I’m sure my friends aren’t the only set of millennials that find themselves falling off the path of “what was supposed to happen”. It’s only every trend piece in existence at the moment that talks about these lackluster jobs and the influx of grads moving home again.
But this question really resonated with me and it doesn’t seem to me that it’s something all those trend pieces touch on. Many times the focus of millennial questions is about whether or not they’re entitled to want a job that pays decently or is the pathway to a career. That’s a legitimate question, but there are many additional elements to it. This question hits on one: those millennials have family and friends who expected things of them. They had teachers and mentors who invested time and energy into these young people. We are well aware of the expectations that people have for us, particularly if we’ve been told we have potential or that we’re talented. We’re well aware that our parents have invested a great deal of money in us (especially after reading op eds about how we’re spoiled because our parents helped finance our college education). No one wants to be a drain on the people they care about. And so perhaps even more deeply seated than the fear that we won’t be able to support ourselves is this question:
Am I a disappointment?
We were supposed to be the golden generation. We were the generation of girl power, the generation of “if you can dream it you can achieve it”, the generation of positive thinking, of FISH!, of every kind of positive reinforcement you can think of. We were the generation that was all supposed to go to college, the generation that was supposed to cure cancer, the generation that was supposed to create world peace. Our parents told us about all the amazing things we could do. From the time we were young we were told we could excel at everything, and we have followed the path we were supposed to: we got straight A’s, we took on every extracurricular known to mankind, we headed organizations, we got into prestigious colleges and accomplished amazing things while we were there. We were set to save the world. We were supposed to be amazing.
Even worse, we’re people pleasers. You say jump and we will pull out a fucking trampoline. You ask and we say yes, what else can I do? We feel deeply beholden to the people who have helped us and we are intensely aware of what our parents have done to give us the things we have (privilege is becoming a mainstream word and we sure as hell know we have it). Anything less than perfect is unacceptable to us, because what if mom/prof/boyfriend/friend/sister/whoever doesn’t think we’re good enough? We could be anything so we absolutely must be everything, and it’s so hard to do enough to fill everything.
And now we work at McDonalds.
Of course millennials are worried about their jobs and their lives. They’ve let everyone down. Or so they think. Underlying the terror about jobs is the fear of fucking everything up and not being the person you’re supposed to be.
Clearly if this is the case the answer is not to continue berating young people for complaining about their job situations and being entitled. But what is the solution to this communal existential crisis? It seems entirely likely that the path we’ve been groomed for our entire lives doesn’t exist, so where do we go now?
First and foremost I think we need to validate this feeling. Enough with the shaming already. Enough with the whispered moments in dark cars that finally dare to ask “did I disappoint you?” It’s hard to say out loud that you think you haven’t done enough, but here goes: I am terrified that my life is not enough. I did not achieve enough in college. I have not already slain grad school. I have not put forth something amazing and mystical and uniquely mine and thus I have not earned my keep yet. I was supposed to change the world and I can’t even earn a living wage. Where did I go wrong?
I want my generation to be able to validate each other by openly admitting these feelings: yes. We should be allowed to communally bitch because it is a coping mechanism and it hurts no one. In addition, that communal bitching is a validation that we didn’t go wrong anywhere: we did what we were expected to and the universe bit us in the ass. This is understandable as it’s part of life, but only by the continual reinforcement that it is not our fault or our failing can we relieve ourselves of the intense guilt that we’ve ruined the universe.
We also need to continually remind ourselves of facts: we came of age in a recession. Jobs are not readily available. The messages we were fed as children are unrealistic and have created unrealistic expectations for us: we cannot do anything we want and we have no obligation to do everything we might want. The barrage of messages that we’re lazy and entitled are simply wrong: we go to our crappy jobs and we work hard and we engage in volunteerism at a high rate and we aren’t out of line to be a little miffed that things didn’t work out how we thought they would.
This emotional fallout is very real and is part of the disenchantment of the generation. It is not selfish nor is it something to ridicule. It is the very real feeling that we were supposed to get something done, give back in some way, and now we are incapable of doing so. In many ways it feels as if our purpose and meaning has been stripped away, as if all our agency is gone.
Communally, we also need to talk about what we are doing that brings meaning to our lives: how are we truly engaging in the world in ways that we can see our impact? I continue to blog because I can see how it affects others. I can make this choice, do something, and hear the feedback from others who have been impacted. These are the moments we need to share with each other: we are not powerless.
And to all those who feel they are disappointments because they haven’t followed the path: remember that none of us have. It never existed in the first place. It’s ok to ask that question and ask for the reassurance that you are still worthwhile. We’re finding new ways to be outstanding human beings and maybe Starbucks is part of that if it means that you are healthy and safe and alive to be there.
So no. I won’t be disappointed in you. I won’t be disappointed in any of you. Your talents are far more than the sum of your education and your job. You have contributed far more than that and you will continue to do so. You never owed anyone greatness or perfection or the right job. Your worth is safe.