The world wide web has an excellent conversation surrounding privilege happening right now. Last week, I published The Funnel of Financial Privilege, and a few days later this article by a disgruntled Yelp employee went viral. I tweeted my support, as well as some of my thoughts on the new normal post-grad experience. The original piece was then challenged with a harsh rebuttal from a bootstrapping millennial martyr. I felt the need to chime in with something more, because why the hell not.
Who is the bootstrapping millennial martyr?
These are young twenty- and thirty-somethings that had a rough start in their careers, usually marked by underpaid drudgery and ungrateful bosses. They now believe that because they suffered, everyone deserve to. They talk about how their bad experiences made them a better person, citing shit pay and bad hours as the source of their incredible work ethic. They talk about rising through the ranks to their current level success, insisting every step of the way was marked with hardship that they overcame with tenacity and grit. They criticize anyone that complains about their own circumstances, no matter how awful they actually are.
According to the bootstrapping millennial martyr, no one is ever actually underpaid or poorly treated — only ungrateful.
Even if I think the perspective is a little extreme, I understand where it’s coming from. I consider most of my life up until my mid-twenties marked by financial hardship. Some of it I’ve shared, most of it I haven’t. It has been my experience that the real struggles a person has endured are generally too raw to be immortalized in black and white on Medium, unless they are exceptionally brave. We don’t want people to know how much we were hurt by our circumstances. We know — and Stefanie’s venomous rebuttal is perfect evidence of this — that opening our wounds to the world often serves only to give people the opportunity to dig their claws into them.
I appreciate that Talia shared her story. I wish more millennials would speak up.
I never thought I was that hard done by in my early twenties until much later in my life. When I had my own close calls with eviction and empty fridges like Talia, I still thought I was doing okay. I knew there were people in the world struggling with drug addiction, domestic violence, and single-parenthood, so being an underpaid waitress responsible for her own university tuition and living expenses just didn’t seem that bad, comparatively.
But the truth of the matter is, having landed a job paying $50,000 after graduation with a student loan balance of less than half that amount, I never had to suffer the indignities of being underpaid for my degree. Since graduating, I have always had enough to pay off student loans, live without roommates, save for retirement, travel internationally, and afford day-to-day luxuries like going out with friends or buying new clothes. My income increased year-over-year, until I went back to school for my MBA, after which it increased even more. I have always been fairly compensated for my work, never struggled to make ends meet with a professional job, and believe my university degrees were a worthy and profitable investment in my earning potential.
In other words, while my early life might be marked by financial struggle, my post-grad experience was the complete opposite. And you know what?
I think everyone deserves the same.
Which is why I don’t understand at all why Stefanie and Talia imagine themselves to be on opposing sides, when it is so painfully obvious they’re both fighting the same losing battle. Both of their post-grad experiences are miserable, but only one seems willing to admit it doesn’t have to be that way.
Everyone deserves to earn a living wage. Period.
You have a right to food, shelter, and clothing. You also have a right to rest and leisure time. These are laid out as basic human rights by the United Nations (Articles 23 through 25, to be exact). I don’t think asking to work at a wage that affords these things is too much.
If you show up for a job and you do the work you’re supposed to do, then you should be compensated with enough to keep a roof over your head and food in your stomach. The notion that it’s ok to spend a few years after college unable to afford life because struggling will be good for you is a harmful myth we’re all buying into because we don’t want to believe our suffering is for naught.
Heads up: your suffering really is for naught. Sorry.
The bootstrap narrative is a lie we tell ourselves to avoid admitting that we may have suffered needlessly.
Humans have a cognitive bias to interpret bad experiences as necessary for positive personal growth and development. This is an evolutionary coping mechanism that prevents you from falling into crippling depression whenever something bad happens to you. In other words, chanting “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!” and “I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for those hard lessons!” helps you process your negative experiences in a way that allows you get out of bed each morning with a skip in your step instead of wallowing in sorrow, binge-watching Netflix.
This is obviously a good thing. People who are able to look back on negative experiences as good for them are happier and more well-adjusted. But perspective is not always reality. The hard thing about admitting that struggling a bad job where we felt under-appreciated and abused in order to pay our student loan debt wasn’t a positive life experience is that it forces us to admit that what we endured was pointless.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to how much adversity is appropriate to teach you a life lesson, and how much is just needless struggle, but I do think we have to stop worshipping trial-by-fire as the only route to success.
The earn/deserve dichotomy is a distraction from the fact that corporations are taking advantage of you.
The most insidious part of the bootstrapping martyrdom complex is that it distracts from a more important conversation. As long as the young employees are squabbling amongst themselves over who deserves what by using their own piddly wage as a measuring stick, no one’s going to the real ask questions of the corporations that employ them:
- What is the appropriate and fair compensation to ensure an adequate ROI on a degree?
- How much does someone need to earn in order to afford to meet their basic needs and pay off their debt from school?
- What wage for the average worker is necessary to keep the economy on a growth trajectory?
And so on. The real reason Stefanie’s rebuttal went viral is simple:
it reinforces the current business model of abusing employees in order to return the maximum value to shareholders.
If corporations can get employees to defend the model that’s hurting them so badly, they’ll never have to change. You could say that bootstrapping millennial martyrs are suffering from a type of Stockholm Syndrome: they’ve grown so accustomed to being abused, they actually believe they deserve it. Meanwhile, the average CEO makes over 300x what the average worker does.
I have only one piece of advice for those of you stuck in this cycle: don’t be afraid to bite the hand that feeds you if it’s only giving you scraps.
For all her bootstrapping, Stefanie’s salary-brag in her article was a measly $50,000 to $60,000 per year. A decent wage, especially at 4 days of work per week as she claims, but hardly the income you’d expect of someone with a superhuman work ethic developed from all her years for struggle. After all, that was merely my starting point after my Bachelors degree. By age 29, I was earning more than double that, and a week before my 30th birthday, I left my full-time job to run my own company.
From the sounds of it, I suffered much less than Stefanie in my post-graduate work experience — so why, then, did my bootstrapping prove so much more successful?
I’ll tell you: because the painful reality we all must accept is struggle is not necessarily a pre-requisite for success. It’d be nice if it was, but there are plenty of people that get further ahead with smaller steps, and vice versa. This is not to say it’s never good for you or not a contributing factor, but more likely than not, how high you climb in your career will be a mixed result of creativity, hard work, and sheer dumb luck. It doesn’t give you permission to spit on people below you, or try to discredit the success of the people above.
You don’t need other people to earn less in order for you to earn more.
This is an important point that I don’t think many people intuitively understand, but there’s enough money in North America for everyone to earn a living wage. There’s enough money for you to make $50,000, and every single one of your friends, plus everyone you don’t know. And then there’s enough money for everyone to make even more than that.
The sooner you realize this, the better off everyone will be.
Unfortunately, this perspective won’t come naturally. Human beings are nasty and unneighbourly creatures. You’re hardwired not to want to see anyone do better than you. People would actually prefer to earn $80,000 per year and live on a street where everyone else is earning $50,000 per year, than earn $100,000 per year and live on a street where everyone is earning $120,000. In other words, we’d rather be relatively better off than actually better off. This is why Stefanie’s rebuttal is rife with snide remarks about her high school classmates being addicted to cocaine or married to cheating spouses. No matter how well she’s doing, she needs to put other people down to feel she’s doing better than them.
Here’s a novel idea: maybe instead of wishing other people suffer as badly or worse for what we have, we can all just stop being assholes instead.
We can start advocating for higher salaries for everybody. We can start cheering on our friends and peers when they land great jobs with good pay and full-benefits. We all collectively have to refuse to work for free. We all have to negotiate for higher pay.
We’re in this together. This is a generational issue, and we’ll be stronger as a united front rather than a group of back-stabbing competitors.
The longer we accept the status quo, the longer we all remain in no-win economic purgatory
Stefanie is a self-confessed D-student in economics, so I’m not surprised she’s blissfully unaware of the terrifying relationship between sky-high tuition costs, stagnant wages, and wealth disparity, so I’m going to break it down:
- Universities and colleges in America currently have no incentive to make school affordable to students. Here’s the relationship few people don’t understand or don’t want to believe: because virtually everyone has access to unlimited student loans, colleges and universities across the USA can charge whatever they want for tuition, because they know the students will pay it. The money is guaranteed to come through because the loans backed by the US government. In other words, the college/university can’t lose — even if the student does. Your degree doesn’t have to get you a job for the school to make money, they have already collected their fees.
- Over-charging students for school puts them at an economic disadvantage for the rest of their lives. The higher the costs to get a degree, the lower the ROI for the student. Saddling students with massive tuition bills that they then pay for with student loans leaves them without money leftover to save for yeas after graduation. They struggle to accumulate wealth and cobble together a retirement nest egg while balancing student loan payments. Few people think about their golden years, but maybe we need to talk more about the relationship between student loan debt and cat-food for dinner in retirement.
- Unpaid internships serve no one except corporations. Only wealthy, privileged students can afford to work for free. Students that actually have bills to pay can’t, and they miss out on the experience and network these opportunities provide. Paying students for their work will not only equalize this opportunity, it will give employers a selection of higher-quality candidates because they’ll have a bigger applicant pool. Paying the interns will communicate to them that their work has value and they’re contributing members of the business, not volunteers, which will boost productivity and morale. Only corporations win with free internships, everyone wins with paid ones.
- Underpaying new graduates is terrible for the economy. People without disposable income don’t spend money. They don’t buy clothes or TVs, they don’t go out to dinner. They also don’t buy houses, get married, or start families. Do you know how bad it is that millennials aren’t having children? Ask Japan, who currently sells more diapers for seniors than babies and is on the verge of demographic disaster. The broke millennial generation is an economic crisis, and we will all have to live with the consequences of it — even those of us who are NOT broke.
- All of the above exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor. The rich enjoy the funnel of privilege, by-passing the financial hurdles at every step with ease. The poor add one crushing burden on top of the other, and end up hundreds of thousands of dollars behind their well-to-do peers by graduation, which becomes a seven-figure loss in wealth-accumulation over their working lifetime. The rich enjoy prestigious education, high-paying jobs, home ownership, marriage, and family, and the poor suffer high debt loads, job insecurity, divorce and financial distress.
But what we can learn from this is simple: signing up for the above without criticism, without protest, without even thinking aloud, “there must be a better way!” perpetuates the cycle and hurts everybody. It’s time for everyone to be on each others’ sides, not slinging mud because they had it better or worse.
Bootstrapping millennial martyrs are fighting the wrong battle, and they’re going to cost us the war.