I’ve been out of college for eight months. I went to a fancy liberal arts school and now I work two jobs in customer service to pay the bills. The circumstances I find myself in have become the norm for my generation, and can be quite overwhelming. After an entire life of everyone watching out for you, the student, you’ve now been spit out and left to fend for yourself. Good luck, kid.
A conversation I overheard on the train the other night has had me thinking about this post-grad limbo space I occupy. I settled down into my seat after a long day of work just in time to hear two middle aged men discussing the laziness of millennials. Though the train was packed, these men had no issue with speaking loud enough for the whole car to hear; it was almost as if they were rubbing in my face their disdain for people my age, a broadcast of bitterness. The issue at hand was that a couple of their coworkers were not as gung ho to work until 10pm on the “big project” as our two decorated heroes were. According to our narrators, let’s call them Wallstreet McBadHair and Fiscally-Conservative NeedsaTailor, a certain coworker, name unknown, was overheard complaining about how long his commute home was, and that he was unhappy that he was expected to stay after 6pm. “Millennials just don’t want to do the hard stuff, don’t want to put the work in,” Mr. McBadHair said. “They think they’re too good to get coffee or make copies. When I was first starting out, I was jumping at the chance to run errands!”
Now, in my dream version of this encounter, I would listen with a Mona Lisa smile on my face, content in the knowledge that these men just don’t understand the creative force that my generation is...that I am. Their conversation wouldn’t phase me because I would possess a supernatural wisdom brought to me by all those yoga classes I take. I would pity these men, because they are stuck in a capitalist system that they can’t find their way out of, whereas I, and my fellow young creatives, are being powered by social media and avocado toast to get us to the stars.
As magical as that dream is, that is not what happened- instead, I let the words of these men get to me. I wanted to confidently brush off what I’d heard, but the seed of doubt was planted. I left that train thinking, “Are they right? Am I lazy? Is it my fault that I’m working two jobs that aren’t in the fields that I want to work in, am I not working hard enough?” I really wish I was confident enough in myself to dispel these doubts immediately. Logically I know that these men are wrong about my generation and I know they’re wrong about me. I am a hardworker, and working a couple of odd jobs right out of college is not a sign of failure, especially in our changing financial landscape. I know all of this intellectually, but when the entire system around you is built on the myth that success comes from “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” it’s hard to truly believe in yourself. Essentially, we’ve all been gaslit by a system that doesn’t really care about anyone who doesn’t look like a founding father; rich, white, and cisgender.
The thing is, I can’t really blame the Extraordinary Brooks Brothers - sure, they’re annoying and they’re part of this system, but they’re just a product of it. They began as the bottom feeders who made copies and got coffee. For them, working themselves to exhaustion was the norm; taking care of their mental and emotional health was second to any job. Exhaustion was the mark of a job well done, and the promise of financial success down the line. They were simply following the rules of a broken system. In this time period, the system they hold so dear to their hearts is beginning to crumble , and they’re scared, so they’re yelling on the train.
So what can we do now? Thankfully, we live in a time of revolution in the workplace with movements like #MeToo fighting against workplace harassment as well as lawmakers like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez speaking out about the unfair wages of interns in Washington and promising to pay them a minimum wage. Millennials and Generation Z’ers are entering the workforce while these massive forward bounds are happening in real time and it gives us inspiration to continue to grow and reshape our world - but what can we do? We, the people, living in the quiet moments at the end of the day, when you get on the train and you let the mask of young professional on the grind fall away. Those moments when it’s too much to be a part of a movement or a generation because you are just too damn tired to be more than just yourself, what can you do then to stop the doubt from creeping in?
My answer? I don’t know. I haven’t figured it all out. Those men on the train haven’t figured it out. That whole train car was filled with people coming home from a long day, and they were all probably thinking to themselves, what can I do? Where do I stand, as a cog in the capitalist machine? Who is to blame for the reasons I am unhappy in this job? Why is it so much easier to find fault in someone else than to examine your own role in something?
My experience on this train left me with way more questions than answers or witty explanations to life’s issues. But maybe that’s it, that’s my generation’s saving grace: we are a generation asking questions. With modern-day technology, far more information is coming at us than ever before, but we’re taking it in stride and asking questions about the unknown. Not only that, but we’re asking questions about the things that have been the norm for a very long time.
To the men on the train, I want to say that I don’t want to be at work at my entry level job any longer than I have to. Not because I’m lazy, or ungrateful, or emotionally stunted from those participation ribbons I got- it’s simply because my job does not define me. I will not be measured by how well I can fit myself into the role of dutiful employee. I don’t want to be a cog in any machine, I want to a person who asks questions that I don’t know the answers to.
But the funny thing is, willingly or not, I’m still a cog. The two men on the train are also cogs. I got off that train to go home, and in the morning I got on another train and went right back to work. The idea of radically changing a system in order to live a more fulfilled life is a wonderful thing, but in the meantime, we work. We don’t have the answers, so we work.