Millennial Adventures: An American Dream gone awry

It’s probably fitting that a story about millennial burnout has taken me more than a year to write.

I’m not sure what the original spark was last year, but most recently it was a series of ideas given to me for this column, which were all variations on “why are(n’t) millennials doing X,” with X being things like following astrology, buying houses and playing sports.

My automatic response to the pitches, and really any question involving the words “millennial” and “why,” has been “because we’re broke and sad.”

But why are we broke and sad, when many of us have jobs and food and a roof over our heads? Why has the inability to “adult” become a macabre joke we can all relate to?

Many articles, including a 2011 piece in Forbes and a January longform piece in BuzzFeed, point to the fact that there just isn’t an “American dream” life like there used to be. From day one, our lives have been optimized to achieve that stereotypical dream; no more free time or doing things for fun when we could be doing something to pad our résumés. Perfect upbringing, perfect high school, perfect university, perfect job, perfect life with spouse, 2.5 kids, and a house with a white picket fence out front. Right?

Instead, the millennial condition is years of constant on-the-go that results in off-the-clock emails, dining “al desko” or in the car between jobs, and crippling debt to get there. That’s in addition to the system coming down on top of us.

Our whole life, and maybe even our intrinsic value, has been based on that perfect house with the white picket fence, but most of us will never get it. And after working 60 hours a week to pay the bills, there’s just no time to waste thinking about things we know we’ll likely never have. It’s stressful, exhausting and demeaning.

To quote author Anne Helen Petersen of the BuzzFeed story, “When we talk about millennial student debt, we’re not just talking about the payments that keep millennials from participating in American ‘institutions’ like home ownership or purchasing diamonds. It’s also about the psychological toll of realizing that something you’d been told, and came to believe yourself, would be ‘worth it’ — worth the loans, worth the labor, worth all that self-optimization — isn’t.”

So now that the American dream is effectively dead to us, we find solace in arguably petty things like takeout and role-playing games and $350 roller skates. We also make self-deprecating jokes about it all and nap probably more than we should.

But because it’s all uncharted territory for the generations before us (“I paid for my entire undergrad working summers part time!”, et al), they don’t understand where we’re coming from and instead make us easy targets for their criticism.

We’re selfish for not having kids and buying houses, even though those are the dumbest financial decisions some of us could make right now. We’re stupid for not switching careers to something more lucrative, even though that requires having time and money most of us don’t have.

We’re spending money on frivolities when we should be investing everything we earn, even though the market is volatile. And every other article about millennials seems to accuse us of killing everything from chain restaurants to napkins when really we just want better options for the limited time we have.

We live in a world where living expenses are through the (rented) roof, the environment is going down the tubes and people shut down the government for more than a month over political quibbles. Let us have a bahn mi every once in a while.

Amanda Hutchinson is the assistant community editor for The Times.

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