My editor asked me to write a foreword to my forthcoming book on millennials and burnout. (Pre-order here from Bookshop, which actually gives indie bookstores commission). I’m sharing the first draft of that attempt here.
“Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance.” That’s how Annie Lowrey titled her piece, several weeks into widespread quarantine amidst the spread of COVID-19, detailing the myriad ways the millennials generation is, indeed screwed. “The Millennials entered the workforce during the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” she writes. “Saddled with debt, unable to accumulate wealth, and stuck in low-benefit, dead-end jobs, they never gained the financial security that their parents, grandparents, or even older siblings enjoyed.” And now, right when we should be reaching our “peak earning years,” we’re faced with “an economic cataclysm more severe than the Great Recession, near guaranteeing that they will be the first generation in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.”
For many millennials, articles like Lowrey’s feels less like a revelation than a confirmation: yes, we’re screwed, but we’ve known we’re screwed for years. Even as the stock market rose and official unemployment numbers fell in the supposedly halcyon economy of the late 2010s, very few of us felt anything close to secure. In truth, we were just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the bottom to fall out, for whatever metaphor you want to choose to describe the feeling of just barely arriving at something like financial or job security, while also feeling certain that it could and would all disappear. It wouldn’t matter how hard you worked or for how long, how much you devoted yourself to your job, how much you cared. You’d find yourself back in that lonely, panicky place, wondering all over again, how the roadmap set out for you — promising that if you do this, and you’ll arrive at this — could’ve proven so very wrong.
But again: few millennials are surprised. We don’t expect jobs to last, or the companies that provide them. So many of us live under storms of debt, threatening to swallow us up at any moment. We’re exhausted by the labor of trying to maintain some sort of equilibrium: for our kids, in our relationships, in our financial lives. We’ve been conditioned to precarity.
For millions of people and communities in the United States and across the world, precarity has been a way of life for decades. To live in poverty, or to live as a refugee, is to be conditioned to precarity. The difference, then, is that this was not the narrative that millennials — particularly white, middle-class millennials — were sold about themselves. Like the generations before us, we were raised on a diet of meritocracy and exceptionalism: that each of us was overflowing with potential, and all we needed to activate it was hard work and dedication. If we worked hard, no matter our current station in life, we would find stability.
Long before the spread of COVID-19, millennials had begun to come to terms with just how hollow, how deeply and depressingly fantastical, that story really was. We understood that people keep telling it, to their kids and their peers, in New York Times editorials and in how-to books, because to stop would be tantamount to admitting that it’s not just the American Dream that’s broken; it’s America. That the refrains we return to — that we’re a land of opportunity, that we’re a benevolent world superpower — are false. That’s a deeply discombobulating realization, but it’s one that people who haven’t navigated our world with the privileges of whiteness, middle-class-ness, or citizenship have understood for some time. Some people are just now realizing the extent of the brokenness. Others have understood it, and mourned it, their entire lives.
Writing this from the middle of the pandemic, it’s become clear that COVID-19 is the great clarifier. It clarifies what and who in your life matters, what things are needs and what are wants, who is thinking of others and who is thinking only of themselves. It has clarified that the workers dubbed “essential” are, in truth, treated as expendable, and it has made decades of systemic racism — and resultant vulnerability to the disease — indelible. It has highlighted the ineptitude of our current federal leadership, the dangers of longterm, cultivated mistrust of science, and the ramifications of allowing the production of medical equipment to be run like a business where profits matter above all else. Our medical system is broken. Our relief program is broken. Our testing capability is broken. America is broken, and we, too, along with it.
When COVID-19 first began its spread in China, I was finishing the final edits to this book. When cities began shutting down, my editor and I began wondering how we could address the seismic emotional and economic and physical changes that have accompanied the spread of the disease. But I didn’t want to wedge commentary into each chapter, pretending each section had been written with these new shifts just slightly out of mind. That would be harder, but it would also feel weirder, falser.
Instead, I want to invite readers to think of every argument in this book, every anecdote, every hope for change, as amplified and emboldened. Work was shitty and precarious before; now it’s more shitty and precarious. Parenting felt exhausting and impossible; now it’s more exhausting and impossible. Same for the feeling that work never ends, that the news cycle suffocates our inner lives, and that we’re too tired to access anything resembling true leisure or rest. The fallout of the next few years won’t change millennials’ relationship to burnout and the precarity that fuels it. If anything, it will become even more ingrained in our generational identity.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s the refrain of this book, and that, too, remains true. Maybe all we need to act on that feeling is an irrefutable pivot point: an opportunity not just for reflection, but to build a different design, a different way of life, from the rubble and clarity brought forth by this pandemic. I’m not talking about utopia, per se. I’m talking about a different way of thinking about work, and personal value, and profit incentives — and the radical idea that each of us matter, and are actually essential and worthy of care and protection from precarity. Not because of our capacity to work, but simply because we are. If you think that’s too radical of an idea, I don’t know how to make you care about other people.
It’s true, as Lowrey puts it, that millennials don’t stand a chance. At least not in this current system. But the same dire prediction holds true for large swaths of Gen-X and Boomers, and will only get worse for Gen-Z. The overarching clarity offered by this pandemic is that it’s not any single generation that’s broken, or fucked, or failed. It’s the system itself.
Some Things I Wrote These Past Two Weeks:
A piece I’m really proud of, drawing on 30+ interviews with the residents of Blaine County, Idaho — one of the earliest COVID-19 hotspots, with one of the highest case/mortality rates in the country. Including incredible portraits that really make all of this feel very real.
Building on something I wrote about a few weeks ago — my piece on how no one knows anything, and everyone’s angry, and we’re mapping that anger onto others online, aka COVID-assholery
Some Things That Stuck With Me This Week:
In case you need to feel more pissed off about PPE shortages
Just unspeakably sad, every part of this. I think it’s important to bear witness, though.
The enduring failure of “lean production”
I love this profile, and the beautiful portraits of the remaining “First Speakers”
This week’s just trust me
I hope you’re all hanging in there, even by a thread, amidst all this sadness and upheaval. If there’s a story that you feel needs telling or amplifying, send it my way. If you know someone who’d like this as a momentary distraction in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; I’m trying to give myself a lot of grace and I hope you’re giving yourself a lot, too. Finally, if you’re able, consider giving to your local food bank. You can find yours here, or simply by googling your town’s name and “food bank.” Even a small amount goes a long way.