Millennials get a bad rap. And I say that as a Gen X’er, the nearly-forgotten generation that pioneered getting a bad rap.
Working at a college, I’m surrounded by Millennials. And while they vary internally as much as any age cohort, I’ve generally been struck by the disconnect between the way they’re portrayed in the media and the way they go about their business.
From what I’ve seen, they work harder than my cohort did, and for less payoff. (We could say the same about ourselves, relative to Boomers.) They’re more polite than I remember my own group being at that age. Yes, they’re always checking their phones, but so are we. Most of them are juggling jobs, classes, and family obligations, along with the relationship drama that comes with that age. They’re more racially diverse and socially tolerant than we were. They volunteer more. To the extent that memory serves, they’re much more comfortable with difference than we were. Some of their humor runs dark, but the generation that embraced grunge can’t really complain about that.
The only complaints that ring true are trivial. Some of the music sucks, but if we’re honest, so did a lot of 80’s and 90’s stuff. (Winger? Dokken? “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight?” We have no grounds to grumble.) I still don’t get the “tan shoes go great with gray suits” thing, but hell, we wore Jams and nobody said anything. I’m a little annoyed that baggy fashions were in style when I was skinny, and fitted clothes are in fashion when I’m, well, not, but that’s how it goes. On the Grand Scale of Complaints, this comes in around the level of asking for a Coke and getting a Pepsi. It’s nothing.
Gail Mellow’s column in the New York Times on Monday is an instant classic. She’s the President of LaGuardia Community College, a leading figure in positive community college reform, and a dedicated advocate for students who actually exist. Her piece describes the very real struggles that many college students now face, many of which are much more severe now than they used to be.
Millennials as a group face higher tuition, in real terms, than either their parents or their grandparents did. (As a parent of a 16 year old, this is not abstract for me.) In 1986, when I started at Williams, total cost was about $15,000, and the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. That would be about 4,478 hours. Now, total cost is about $68,000, and the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That comes out to about 9,379 hours. (There are 8,760 hours in a non-leap year.) It’s objectively harder now, and that’s saying something; it wasn’t easy then! Publics are less expensive, but they’ve increased by similar or greater percentages.
Mellow points out, correctly, that the lion’s share of higher ed philanthropy goes to institutions that need it least. Community colleges -- which serve over 40 percent of undergraduates, and which have much more diverse student populations than the rest of higher ed -- get crumbs. Part of that is that we came late to the philanthropic game, but much of it is a combination of prestige-chasing among elites and thin staffing in advancement offices. The effect is to cluster opportunity among those who already have it. Yet Millennials, as a group, bear the burdens with few complaints.
I was never a fan of the “kids today” style of complaining, but it’s particularly objectionable now. Today’s students -- not all of whom are Millennials, but most are -- are working harder than we did, borrowing more, and juggling more, and they’re doing it with generally tougher post-graduation prospects. And while they may be more tired, they’re more socially accepting than we ever were. To the extent that they pressure the rest of us to live up to our better selves, we owe them a debt of gratitude. And help with tuition.
Here’s a challenge to my X’er and Boomer readers. If we want to complain about Millennials, we first have to take away their excuses. That means supporting free community college, universal health care, and a robust job market, among other things. Give them so many opportunities to succeed that they have no right to complain. Then we can gripe about their multicolored socks, and just hope that they don’t find the Duran Duran cd’s downstairs. Until then, I propose that we stop carping and start helping.