The Millennial Trap

I think we all realize there are major generational differences in how Americans experience issues we all like to talk about, most notably economic issues that mean different things depending on one’s station in life. But the Millennial generation (roughly those who came of age in this century) has the especially fraught experience of a Great Recession hitting at the point of or shortly after the launch of adult lives and careers. And for those in the “creative classes”–journalists, artists, do-gooders and even academics–who are not from privileged backgrounds, high educational requirements have often meant a collission of massive student loan debt with low pay, few if any benefits, exceptional insecurity, and the high cost of living in the cities with the most opportunities.

The highly-regarded young journalist Monica Potts, currently a freelancer living in Washington, offers a window into this world via her own and others’ experiences in the cover feature of the new issue of the Washington Monthly, “The Post-Ownership Society.” Here’s a key excerpt:

My friends and I are a recognizable class in D.C. and other cities like it (New York, Los Angeles, Boston), the creatives, the professors, the people who work in nonprofits or think tanks because they want to use their talents to make the world a better place. In decades past, people like us never made much money, and money is not the main way our tribe keeps score. But I see lots of people in the same fields who are twenty-five, thirty, or forty years older than I am who have solid, comfortable lives that have added up materially. They’re editors of magazines, tenured professors, and people who are stably employed at nonprofits with actual salaries, health care benefits, and, if not traditional pensions, then at least matching employer contributions to their 401(k)s. They’re not living in mansions, or even McMansions, but they have tasteful homes they bought on Capitol Hill or in close-in suburbs like Silver Spring or Takoma Park decades ago that now give them an easy half a million in net worth. Along the way they’ve managed to afford having one or two kids, and have sent those kids to college, even if they had to take on debt to pull it off. Many seem satisfied and fulfilled as they approach a modest but comfortable retirement.

I’m happy for them. But their lives seem incredibly distant to me, as if their histories belong in a textbook of some past America. I don’t see the path that would get me from where I am to where they are. And I’m sure many of my friends, though we might be counted among the more privileged members of our generation, feel the same.

The raw economics of the Millennial plight are probably familiar to most well-educated people, although the size and weight of student loan debt for people graduating from college or grad school these days is hard to grasp for those of us who finished up our education before tuitions rocketed out of sight, leaving grant-based financial aid far behind (Back in the 70s I graduated from a good private college–Emory–with the only parental support being letting me live at home, and I didn’t have to borrow a dime, though I did borrow for law school later).

What Potts explains that may be new to old folks is the array of utilities they may have heard of in isolation–Uber, airbnb, AmazonPrime, etc.–that together add up to a system of asset-sharing for people without the means to own much of anything other credentials that are worth less than expected and the debt incurred to secure them. Thus the title of the piece.

You should read the whole thing, but it’s important to mention that while Potts is mainly focused on the microeconomics of the Millennial Generation, she concludes with some potentially political implications of the macroeconomics:

When we rent a Zipcar for a few hours, Zipcar asks us to clean up after ourselves and fill the gas tank out of a sense of obligation to our Zipcar community. When we hire an Uber or a Lyft or rent a room on Airbnb, the person on the other end has a Facebook-style profile picture, and we chat like old friends on a big social network that purports to have taken the place of an economy. In reality, though, these are the same types of services that have always been around—private drivers and taxis, hotels, rental car companies—but their services are sliced up into tiny bits and provided by underpaid contingent workers, which is what we are ourselves. No one notices the money changing hands, and it may seem like we’re just sharing a service with friends. But in fact we’re enriching the owners of whatever app or platform we’re using, becoming just a data point on the path to their payday while we age without assets. It’s their world, and we’re just renting it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.