The Problem With The Bootstrapping Millennial Martyrdom Complex


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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, homeownership, 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.

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  • Honestly, I would fall under the bootstrapping millennial martyr because that’s all I’ve ever known growing up. My family were immigrants to Canada and my parents busted their ass to get to where we are today – so I figured that’s the only way to make my way to success, bust my ass too.

    But I am starting to see that this doesn’t have to be this way. I would agree that I’m in the position I’m in now (RN making high five-figures my first full year out of university) due to that “mixed result of creativity, hard work and sheer dumb luck”. I’ve got a great starting point being 24 even with the student loans I carry from my university years.

    It’s a refreshing perspective when you say “we’re all in this together” and the real issues are that big companies and corporations are not paying us a fair wage and post-secondary educations are too expensive and government isn’t doing anything much to help us. It’s also a refreshing perspective to point out that millennials who are just starting out in their careers don’t need to suffer (even if some millennials before them did) and that we should all advocate for the same. I was totally deep in my mindset that one “deserves” what they get, not seeing that there’s a major issue with the environment they’re in – this will have to change.

  • Fun story about benefits (since Stefanie specifically mentioned how lucky Talia is for having them):

    I worked for a Canadian contractor that provided benefits administration and support for a huge American company. They offered the majority of their employees benefits but the cost was pretty astronomical if you were one of their minimum wage workers. Because of how the American system works, employees have a limited window of opportunity to enroll in their benefits when they start. This minimum wage employee called in with about two weeks left to their enrollment period to put them, and their partner, on the benefits. I did so and advised the employee that they would need to pay all the way to back to start of their employment period. The employee called back a few weeks later because they were confused as to why their paycheque was in the negative. The cost of the benefits ended up in them not being paid and still owing money. Yes, benefits are great but not when you’re not paid enough to cover them. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Yelp/Eat24 has similar benefit set-up and the cost was eating up a nice bit of her take home pay.

    It’s a terrible system that’s in place as a result of some stupid beliefs. If you really want people to work hard and retain their knowledge and loyalty, pay them enough so they want to stick around.

    I’m a lucky millennial who graduated without debt from their undergrad. I got a minimum wage job that had great hours and cheap benefits. I could probably have survived on it in Newfoundland and eventually made my way to something better. I went back to school and got more education and now have a job that pays me three times as much. It has been a balance of luck and skill to get me here. In between, I went from earning $10/hr to $13/hr and the cost of everything else went up far more than that. Living wages are not something someone is fed on a silver platter; they are what people are entitled to.

  • I’ve spent the better part of a decade earning between $50k – $60k because I chose a career path that pays that way. Do I think teachers are underpaid? In some ways, absolutely. Do I think I could earn more if I worked for a company that offered raises and bonuses? Yup. But I chose this. I knew my salary. I knew the other benefits that I was offered. That’s my biggest issue with the Yelp piece. Unless she was totally bamboozled by them when they took her on, she knew what she was going to be paid. Is it a shame that they mistreat their talent and new hires? Incredibly so. I’m not saying I disagree that the martyrdom battle is being misdirected. I’m also unclear as to what she thought would happen when she accepted that pittance to begin with. This is a real gem: “We all collectively have to refuse to work for free. ” Thanks for the really compelling responses, as always!

    • The average teacher in Alberta, where I live, currently earns $99,300 after a decade of experience (

      Why do they deserve to make 50% more than you for the exact same job? Should we reduce their salary or should yours be increased to match it?

      • Bingo! I have to agree with you 100% on that one.

      • Is it the exact same job? Is it funded the same way? Not sure how it works in Canada, but I imagine it’s at least partially due to property taxes and local budgets. My earlier point wasn’t that I’m necessarily content with my salary – but when I accepted the job, I could see the salary schedule. I know that’s a bit different than many corporate jobs, but I also know general averages of what teachers make in the States. It doesn’t make it right, but I was in a fortunate position to not be blind to it.

      • I’m guessing from your credentials, you know exactly why teachers in Alberta make more than teachers in Florida.

        • yeachers in the United States are underpaid. It seems even more so when you compare their salaries to those of teachers in Alberta though. My in laws are teachers at a private school in Ohio and together they make the same that I do on my own. But when you compare our costs, they have a beautiful house on a few acres of land and probably spend less on groceries for their 4 person family than we spend on two of us. Some of these things need to be looked at relatively. At least in Canada we are fortunate enough to also have healthy and happy working conditions and lots of funding and support on top of earning a decent wage.

      • The article you refer to is poorly worded but it does not say the average teacher earns$99 300.00. That refers to what is paid after working for at least ten years and is for those at the top of the qualification chart.

        • Read my comment again.

          I said “after a decade of experience”.

          A decade is 10 years.

          Many of my friends are teachers (including Char that commented right above you). They’ve shared their incomes with me. Most have been teaching 3-5 years, so they haven’t hit the 10 year mark yet, but their incomes are already high and increasing every year. They will easily make $100K in their 30’s as teachers.

      • Not sure about deserving but the Alberta Government’s spending grew the fastest and to be the most.

        This from 2012 NP article: “Over the past dozen years, Alberta’s government has leapt from the eighth highest-spending provincial administration on a per capita basis to far and away the highest-spending — higher even than such well-known spendthrifts as Quebec and Ontario. Increases in provincial expenditures have turned an $8.5-billion surplus in 2006 into recent deficits in the $1-billion to $3-billion range. This spending spree is due not to an expansion of public services to Albertans or to a boom in infrastructure construction, but almost entirely to an EXPLOSION in public-sector pay. And it is unsustainable.”

        Essentially, the Gov’t spent like drunken sailors on Public sector pay. It’s underpinned on commodity prices which is ‘not fair’.

        Overall, I’m glad I missed the Millennial cohort (I’m 36 but there is big difference between those that are 4 years younger and below). In a way, ignorance is bliss, and social media is a ego bruiser.

  • “According to the bootstrapping millennial martyr, no one is ever actually underpaid or poorly treated — only ungrateful.” I LOVE this and agree SO hard. I waited tables, assisted and did a lot of drudge work in my 20s which certainly shaped me into who I am, but it’s still challenging the norm of that system that allowed me to become who I am. If you don’t challenge $8/hour, you resign yourself to $8/hour- no thank you!

  • I think I love you.

  • I’ve now read the original letter and three responses (all women) and I have one take away: every single one was incredibly well written. Thank you for writing your thoughts down, because, as always, they’re cutting to the central issue with fresh perspective.

    I was blown away by Talia’s pose on Twitter when she tweeted in her response to Stefanie’s story is that someone should hire this female writer. Perhaps she meant to have an underlying sarcastic tone, but frankly, it didn’t read as such to me.

    Currently, I’m fleshing out my own feelings on this topic. I come from a lot of privilege and attempt to recognize it in my writing and when in conversation on these topics. I’ve worked low-wage jobs in and after college, but mostly because I wanted to stand on my own and prove to my parents I could. Not because I had no one to back me up or massive debt. Part of me does wonder if Stefanie’s knee-jerk reaction also comes from reading these sentiments from someone that resembles herself: both are young, college educated, white women.

    Stefanie’s version of the story also speaks to the American Dream perspective of, “if you work hard enough then it will happen”. Is this outdated and privileged? Yes. Does it still work for some? Yes. It combats the general stereotype of entitled millennials — but this also can come from the same place of “why do we have welfare? just work harder.” Not a sentiment I agree with either.

    Sorry this comment start to ramble, but as you can see I haven’ quite figured out which camp I rest in. Either way, I agree with you and the rebuttal from Nicole Silverberg at GQ, ” I love this, because I think it’s important for women to publicly correct their peers and hone their one-upmanship while ultimately reducing our generation to a series of broad stereotypes, which I will soon do.”

    • You don’t have to be in one camp or another. In reality, there is a bit of truth to all of it.

      There is an honest problem with stagnating salaries in the US, plus outsourcing, cost of benefits, increasing cost of education, and the loss of good-paying jobs that don’t require a degree. To even get a job as a receptionist or office manager, you need a degree. Well, that wasn’t always true. So now you get to go into debt to maintain the “status quo”. We need to “catch up” to reality.

      But America believes in “bootstraps” and always has. It’s our thing. Everyone sees themselves as a potential millionaire.

      On the other hand, man, pay your dues. Every generation has had to do that in some way, shape, or form. Sure, some people always get lucky. There are always going to be the people graduating with six figure jobs. The golden children. But come on. I’ve known many people who had to work for everything. They graduated into a recession (say, the early 90s) and worked temp jobs. You know if that happens (which is just bad luck), you NEVER catch up?

      I had to pay my dues, even with an engineering degree. The first year or two or five is all about learning the skills before you are worth the money. It’s like that in many many industries. And if you change industries or jobs? A lot of times you start over.

      Complaining about a living wage is one thing, but with less than a year of experience? Sounds kind of hollow.

  • I read the original, then the response, and now the response-to-the-response, and I think the part that’s bothering me is that Stefanie isn’t implying that Talia should suffer just to suffer. To me, her frustration lies in how Talia is suffering because of her choices. She didn’t move to the Bay area because she found a job – she found a job because she had intent to move to the Bay area, an incredibly (possibly the most) expensive area in the country. She chose to live alone. She chose to accept a minimum wage position, and only keep one job. She then blames her employer for all of these choices. If she changed a single choice out of all I’ve listed, her life would have been significantly easier, less frustrating, more “livable.” Yes, everyone deserves a living wage. And if she’d had a roommate, it would be. That’s an extra $600 a month. And that’s a LOT. That’s her groceries. Her car repairs. Stefanie was not frustrated because Talia should HAVE to suffer, quite the opposite. She’s frustrated because Talia CHOSE to suffer, and then complained about it. And honestly, that frustrates me, too.

    • Excellent point

    • Talia was making about $1470 a month. Her $1200 apartment sounds like a studio, so she’d be paying more than $600 to share – let’s say realistically around $700-800. That leaves her with $600-700 to live on. Better than less than $300, but still not really a livable salary in the Bay Area.

      You’re still missing the point. Maybe Talia made poor choices, but those poor choices were ALL catalyzed by the fact that Yelp/Eat24 was paying people just $1470 per month in the Bay Area. There were lots of things that she could’ve done differently, but there was one simple thing Yelp could’ve done differently to make the outcome different.

      Also, everyone else must have been reading a different screed than the one I read because I didn’t see where she blamed her CEO.

  • I’m torn, having read both sides of the argument I think they both made some good points. I do agree that Talia is underpaid, especially for the area she lives in. But I also think that you have to budget for the amount you’re making, and she chose an apartment that was way too expensive and that screwed her budget. I definitely think employers should pay higher wages, and CEO pay is very disproportionate to the average worker’s wage. But until you start making more you have to live within your means. I know lots of people who aren’t making what they should, probably myself included, but sometimes at the start of your career it’s hard enough to get a job at all, let alone one that is perfect. At least the article and the rebuttals are shining some light on the situation for young grads.

    • The problem is that there aren’t cheaper apartments in the Bay area. It’s an insanely expensive place to live where it isn’t really possible to live within those means. The average rent for a one-bedroom in Oakland is close to $2,000. In San Fran proper it’s $3,500. If you can’t possibly get anything cheaper, are you “choosing” a place that’s too expensive?

      • Yeah, she did well to find a place for $1,200. If she shared with a partner, her financial problem would be solved.

        I moved out of Vancouver not because I couldn’t afford it, but because I didn’t have to live in an expensive city.

  • Both of these girls are just irritating. I’m not going to lie, a big factor in post-grad pay is what degree you hold. The martyr and the whiner are both English majors looking to survive in a very difficult job market. I won’t put down fine arts degrees (I have one), but you HAVE to realise that a bachelor’s degree (any of them really, except for a select few) isn’t going to get you very far unless you’re really dedicated or luck, plan to work at call centres (which I did and then realised I wanted to do my master’s degree) and/or the service industry. These are all fine options (indeed, I know bartenders who make $100k a year), but maybe just be realistic about what degree you pursue and your goals. Honestly, I rarely even talk about my BA, my master’s is the only degree that matters.

    The other issue I have is that a lot of this rests on “experience”; you can’t get a job without experience. To get experience, you’re expected to volunteer. Unpaid internships are just unacceptable unless you’re legitimately doing it for a non-profit organization. If school is intent on being so lengthy and expensive then it 100% needs to be counted towards experience instead of a tidbit at the top of your resume that sits there as a pre-requisite to even being able to apply for the job.

    I’m so irritated, haha!

  • I agree with all your five comments at the end, and I think this is a very important subject. However, I feel very discouraged with the culture and privilege today.

    I don’t know how it’s going go get better. Companies don’t seem to want to pay more, and when they do they raise prices to “offset costs”. We keep hearing inflation is going up, but wages NEVER seem to go up. And when they do it’s by such a small amount it’s insignificant.

    How can the prices of necessities like housing, food, etc keep going up when people continue to get paid the same? When at the same time CEO’s pay and corporation’s bottom lines keep ballooning.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop. I feel so grateful before all that I have, but I feel so discouraged for all the people out their who are underpaid and under appreciated. The world can be very discouraging right now. Something has to change. I know what, but I can’t see when it’ll happen.

  • I fell into the martyr complex when I just ‘accepted’ that my wage doing non-profit arts work was always going to pay me poorly. But honestly, reading accounts like this really changed my perspective and helped me stop feeling like I ‘deserved’ to struggle. Employers make choices. They choose the salary they think you will accept. They waste thousands on things that mean far less than your job and we all collectively as a society need to fight against it.

    Case in point, a few years ago I left a job that I loved where I was only making 33k a year because after two years and a PROMOTION they hadn’t given me the raise that was promised to me, a raise that was only 3k. The person who took the job after me was given that wage when she started. They could have done that with me, but made the choice not to.

    She was less experienced, but they knew that they NEEDED her to replace me and that she was the closest person they could get to replace me for that salary. She benefitted because I made a stink about the salary, so even though I should feel jealous that she ended up with the salary I wanted, I actually feel better because the stink I made helped a younger girl with LESS experience (but still very talented) get my old job for slightly closer to the wage it should be for her age and experience.

    And I went on to a job that paid 10k more instead. And then 15k+ after that.

    I hope she causes a stink and gets what she wants too. We must keep employers accountable.

  • I have heard so many older people say things like “When I was your age, I had two kids and three jobs” or “My first job out of college didn’t pay well…I had to pay my dues.” Right, but did they have student loan debt? $12/hour might have been enough to live on when college was actually affordable and students didn’t graduate with five to six figures of debt. Wages have not increased with the cost of college. Why should anyone bother spending tens of thousands of dollars on a degree just to get paid $12/hour? It’s not worth it. I absolutely agree that when we pay grads so little and they have no ROI, there’s no incentive to attend college. I think we are going to reach a point eventually when people stop getting bachelor’s degrees because they will start to see that it’s no longer worthwhile…which will lead to a less educated society, which benefits no one.

  • Thank you very much for this perspective – posts like this are exactly why I return to your site. Looking to the big picture and adding in a dose of compassion (or understanding of cognitive biases!) is often missing in the personal finance world. I think that people become very defensive when there’s even the insinuation that part of their success is attributable to luck (and “luck” in itself is made up of both straight-up coincidence and systemic privilege). Thanks again.

  • Your post is well-written and insightful, but it overlooks one undeniable fact, Talia’s job at Yelp has no value beyond the minimum wage that she was being paid. Sure, Yelp can afford to pay her more, and yes, the cost of living is far too high in SF, but if the extent of your goals is to write meme’s for a website, then you can’t really expect sympathy when your position fails to provide you with any financial rewards. It’s an entry-level position, requiring almost no skill-set beyond a pulse and the ability to form a complete sentence. That’s the reason for the constant turnover- this is the job you take while looking for the job you want. And your criticism of the “bootstrap complex” overlooks another fact in this game of life –
    There are only three paths to economic success –
    Earn it, Steal it, or have it handed to you.
    Until someone comes up with a fourth option, I’ll keep preaching the first one.
    Nice post – JM

  • Bridget, I thank you so much for posting this. It brings up my spirits even in the slightest simply knowing there are some people in the country that have positive thoughts and don’t blame the suffering millennials (and others!) for our position.

    Something that a lot of these “bootstrapping martyrs” forget to mention (or perhaps have no experience with) is that regardless of your willingness to work part-time, low-wage, crappy or other type jobs, they won’t always hire you. I am a first-gen college grad in my family and I was raised in poverty. I attended C grade schools with high drop out and drug rates and chose at a young age to overcome my circumstances. I am DAMN proud of my degrees despite them being in highly underemployed fields. I worked my ass off for my music degrees knowing full well that I would struggle to find full-time, well-paid work after school.

    What I was not expecting is the fact that no matter how much I beg, pander, swindle, I can’t even get a job at Starbucks. Or CVS, a company I worked for in college for 3 years. Or Walgreens. Or Barnes & Noble. Or [insert other stereotypical part-time, entry-level employment here].

    I graduated with my Bachelors after a ton of hardship that I don’t really like to talk about (involving the last three members of my immediate family dying within the same year). I went through my share of Netflix binging and cried 99% of the time I wasn’t watching The Tudors or Sex and the City. When I finally got the motivation to get off my ass and get a job, I wasn’t certified to teach in the public schools and there were no music stores in my area that needed private teachers. Being of a very humble upbringing, I happily applied to a multitude of retail chains, coffee shops, grocers, malls, etc. I had a bunch of interviews where I brought in my resume, freshly printed with my B.A. in Music Studies and history of Photo Lab and Cashier experience from CVS, and left with nothing.

    Backstory: 2007 was the last year I worked at CVS, in the height of the gas prices ($45 to fill my ’93 mustang with an 11 gallon tank) and unemployment under Bush. I had been running the Photo Lab for three summers while I was away from school and always did so well they gave me a raise with every summer return. Who makes $10/hour when the minimum wage is $7 and they’re not manager or asst. manager? Not many at this branch anyway… But it didn’t matter how good I was at my job, I was making less and less. I went down from 40 hours a week with some overtime, to 20 hours a week if I were lucky.

    Back on track: After graduating in 2010, I knew I wasn’t going to get my $10/hour back immediately and I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy that minimum wage (despite the recent increase of a QUARTER. WHOA.); however, I went into every interview with a humble willingness to work for minimum wage. Some employers were honest and told me I was too experienced for their position (often bullshit for most of them because I had only ever worked for CVS) or that I was overqualified (AKA you have a Bachelors and we don’t want to pay for that). Most just never called me back (and yes, I called to check in…).

    As an unfortunately proud person, you can imagine how fired up I got when I came into my old CVS location to find a teenager that drove a nicer car than I did in the position for which I interviewed and was turned down. (He was the exception. Living in Florida usually meant a retiree was bored and got the job over me.) Everyone I knew kept telling me to remove my Bachelors from my resume. Excuse me very much, but I worked my ASS off for that degree. I worked my ass off for that stupid piece of paper because I was told growing up that it would HELP me get a job, not hinder my chances. I worked for that effing thing while watching my mother die slowly because Medicaid approved doctors ignored her cancer symptoms for years because she didn’t have the money for the tests and they didn’t want to bother with their crappy Medicaid payouts (but I said I don’t want to talk about that). I am DAMN proud of that stupid piece of paper and I don’t think I should have to pretend I didn’t go to school to get a part-time gig that will pay just a few of my bills.

    Fast-foward to today: I am in a relationship with a wonderful guy who got a job with the government in NYC. We have since moved to the city and are still awaiting his start date. They kind of screwed us by lighting the fire under his ass to get up here and then postponing his start date. That all said, we’re currently both unemployed and have spent the better part of the small savings we did have on the move here.

    He had a pretty great job where we lived previously but I was commuting to a part-time job where I worked my butt off for very few returns. It sucked most of the time and I spent most my paychecks on gas to get there, but it was a job in my field. Since we have been in the city (about 5 weeks), I have applied to roughly 16 jobs in my field for which I’m qualified, I have applied for the NY teaching certificate (which is incredibly difficult to get if you, like me, did not get a degree in education), and have applied to some disgusting number like 40-50 part-time and full-time entry level jobs. I have again applied for things like B&N, CVS, Starbucks, and have also applied to multiple reception/secretarial/administrative positions for which I’m qualified (I did some time in offices during graduate school). Guess how many interviews I’ve had?

    Zero. No one wants to hire someone with a Masters Degree. I have included in my cover letters to non-education/music jobs that I am looking for something in another field. Still nothing. They would rather hire the kid in high school or the retiree who is bored of staying home.

    I have not been reduced to rice yet but if my boyfriend doesn’t get a start date within a month, we’re going to have to break our atrociously expensive NY lease to move back to Florida. Well, that’s if my previous employer would take me back and if he could get another job in the area. At least we have a spare bedroom available at my best friends’ house…

    TL;DR Summary: Not every millennial is struggling because of the usual rhetoric tossed around. We are not lazy, entitled assholes that are whiny that we aren’t immediately successful after the degree(s). Some of us were fed bullshit about being about to work our way up in life should our degree ROIs become negative. Some of us have jobs, but are being screwed by our employers: postponing someone’s start date, forcing them to live on their savings and credit cards; paying someone so little that they can’t afford to eat unless they want to get a second job and work 60-80 hours every week; giving employees raises while concurrently reducing the hours they are allowed to work.

    The job market is hard right now for everyone. It just seems like we got the short stick because we were told it was getting better and instead it got way, way worse. That doesn’t mean we should suffer. That doesn’t mean we should have poor quality of life because we chose a certain degree path. That doesn’t mean we were stupid to follow our dreams and get Liberal Arts degrees (Music Major pointing back at two English Majors here). EVERYONE should have a chance to live a decent, comfortable life. Eating is not a luxury. Working for a company that treats you like a human instead of a machine should not be a luxury. Anyone who thinks so is out of their mind or simply masochistic.

    Sorry for the rant…

    • You aren’t being hired for shitty jobs because they think you are going to leave. You need to remove your post-secondary from your CV. You’re a fool if you do otherwise.

  • You quickly are becoming my favorite blogger.

  • I love this! It is true of student loan debt, and also true of so many other things in life. People so often don’t want other people to get ahead so that their own suffering has meaning. But that is a poor justification for holding people back and perpetuating suffering, as you have so eloquently stated. Thank you for this wonderful post.

  • I’m a bit like you, in the sense that my first job out of uni paid a pretty good salary, had good working conditions, an appreciative boss, and generally made me feel valued. I remember getting pretty hacked off with one or two colleagues I worked with at one point, who were always going on about how many hours a week they used to work ‘in the real world’ and how we, in our apparently cushy version of reality, were spoiled. I then moved to a job in said ‘real world’ and found things more or less the same.

    I think the issue you’re talking about would get more press if some people weren’t ungrateful for what they have. There’s extremes at both ends of the spectrum. There’s those who think “I had it tough, so you should too” and there’s those who think “I want the world, and I want it now”. The productive way forward, in my opinion, sits somewhere in the middle.

    One point I did want to challenge, however, was your suggestion that all employers are taking advantage of employees. That, to me, is fuel to uneducated minds and an excuse for them to justify their lack of gratitude about being handed a decent first-up salary. Yes, some companies do take advantage of their employees. Yes, some companies do put their shareholders at the forefront of what they do. But as someone who works in management and sees the ledger side of business a lot more than a freshman out of college would, I can say that paying employees what they think they are worth every time is simply not viable if you want to actually stay in business. I agree, it’s not always ideal, but it’s just the reality. I’d love to send my staff on a lot more training, because they deserve the opportunity to develop themselves. But if there’s other pressures that would place more at risk if I didn’t attend to them, unfortunately they will need to take precedence.

    The other point I’d make is that the business is actually about the customer, first and foremost. If employees don’t like that, then they’re welcome to find another business to give their valuable skills to. Businesses don’t exist as sheltered workshops for the severely capable employee, they are about serving their customers.

    A really good and thought-provoking post, Bridget.

  • I guess I’m a “bootstrapping millennial martyr.” I read both the open letter and the response after learning about them through your email and found both to be off-putting (the open letter being tacky, the response being self-serving and judgmental).

    I just could not feel bad for Talia Jane. What she’s experiencing is situational poverty, brought on by a combination of bad decisions. There are many more Americans in generational poverty who do much more to improve their situations than anything she’s done.

    I’m only a year older than her, and I graduated without a job. I immediately interviewed for a position as an AmeriCorps VISTA, was accepted, and then lived in situational poverty for a year. I figured out how to make things work. I moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone but did not go into debt to do so (if you can’t afford to move it, don’t!). I lived in isolated farmhouse where the water ran orange when it rained because it was what I could afford. Most of my showers that year I took at the local YMCA. I couldn’t afford alcohol – I didn’t go out to eat because I based my eating choices on what I could pay for with SNAP.

    When you’re in a rough place, you make sacrifices and decisions that make sense for you financially. I really struggled that year – it wasn’t an easy task, but I never had the mentality of “woe is me.”

  • Steven Tetterington
    March 2, 2016 9:59 am

    I really appreciate Bridget’s article. I’m not a “Bootstrapper” but a seasoned professional from a few generations earlier. I think it’s important to remember that this just isn’t this generation’s issue. It’s the current National/Global issue: parity, poverty, affluence, the 1%. It’s the social/cultural issue that’s been going on since the 1940’s, the end of World War II and the ascendancy of US economic power. It’s also the Horatio Alger cultural creation story.

    Culturally, Humanity will have to decide what will “drive and found” (as in foundation) life. Will it be the inequality of “using and abusing” or some sense of Fair Deal for All.

    I’m hopeful because of the values of the Millennials. We protested in the 70’s because of the Vietnam war and just this same thing – we just called it Materialism and the Military Industrial Complex. (Now I’ve dated myself -oh well) We had essentially the same values but just an issue that appeared in a different form.

    Here’s to the Struggle for Betterment and Fairness for All!

  • I guess you could say that I’m a “Boostrapping Gen-X Martyr” because I came out of a M.Sc. degree in the mid-90s and proceeded to spend almost 15 years of my adulthood trying to finally get somewhere in my career, and get to even the same ballpark of Stephanie’s “salary-brag”. The list of menial jobs I worked during all that time is too long to list. There is little in this discussion that is solely the experiences of millenials — I remember these thoughts too well from 20 years ago.

    Because of my experiences, I too am sensitive to those letters written by people that suggest that they deserve better — it easily comes off as entitled. I wholly agree that everyone deserves the basics of life — food, shelter, leisure time, etc — and I am happy to provide my share into society’s kitty to make sure that happens, but I bristle at the idea that I (or anyone with a degree) should have been owed so much more.

  • This is an article in support of Socialism. It’s advocates that ambitious and successful people should be forced to pay the entitled.

    • Thank you someone with half a brain that see’s what socialism really is a diasaster for those that want to eventually enjoy life without worry

  • I don’t understand when people shit on other people in the circumstances they were JUST IN. While I did find the tone of Talia’s piece to be a bit entitled (it’s not ridiculous to spend a year in a starting position. It’s just not.), I thought Stephanie’s tone was way over the top. She was needlessly cruel, and her point of ‘I did it this way and so too must you!” is stupid.
    This is a good read. There is enough money for all. You shouldn’t need to work 2+ jobs just to make ends meet.

  • I feel I must chime in…I’m 47 and married and have lots of money. But in my 20’s and 30s I worked like a dog, and so did my husband. Like no vacations, no new furniture or clothes, and when we quit our jobs and started our own business, we worked 18 -hour days for many years. Still no vacations, and watched our money…. Still have many second hand clothes and not afraid to shop that way. We knew we couldn’t have kids and a successful business so we chose the business. We did well and now are semi-retired with two homes including one in Europe. Choices, baby:)

    • I’m glad that you’re happy, Lisa, but it makes me sad you couldn’t enjoy BOTH a family and your lifestyle. I don’t think that’s a fair choice to make, and it’s unfortunate you had to sacrifice having the children you wanted in order to live the life you do.

      Many young people are delaying parenthood until their 30’s and having smaller families than they would otherwise want to because of the cost. This is going to create a major shift in our population demographics in coming decades, where more than 50% of the workforce will be over the age of 50 and there will not be enough young people in the workforce paying taxes to support them. It’s already a big problem in other developed countries (like Japan, which I mentioned in the post).

      We should not be asking our young people to make this choice. They should be able to earn enough money to raise the families they want.

      • Your comment is kind, Bridget, but I actually think we–deep down– didn’t really want to have kids:) but your points are all good. Somewhere, we need to consider demographics vs. overpopulation of the world, but I know that’s a whole oher issue.

    • Great story but there are people out there who have done what you’ve done and just ended up in bankruptcy because their business failed. And instead of walking away they poured their life savings and slaved away. Hardwork doesn’t guarantee wealth.

  • Fantastic column. You are absolutely right. I am 50, so I am old enough to have grown up in a time (in Canada) where all anyone needed to do to get ahead was have decent education and a decent work ethic. I feel deeply for the young people today who are being placed in untenable, Darwinian circumstances, then expected to not only like it but somehow think this is character-building. Maybe it is, but it is also grossly unfair, especially in an economic situation where the wealthy are getting grossly, fantastically wealthy at the expense of everyone else. That is not only not how a society is supposed to function, it is not how a society can function. Even some of the .01 % realize this. To paraphrase Henry Ford, he paid his workers decent wages because someone had to buy his cars.

  • I understand that she was away for 20 of the last 60 days of work. ANYONE should be fired for that alone. The poor pay was not sustainable if she indeed had gone her job!

  • Sorry by early 30’s are not millennial’s we are the ones that still have half a brain and can see what these young punks who are the real millennial’s want to do to screw everything up and who have zero understanding on how things really work! Socialism is a curse on those who are hard workers as we won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of our labour to pay for all the self entitlements of these little turds!

  • I bought into all of this until I came to Europe, where families help each other and the government financially supports their citizens. It absolutely does not have to be a struggle, I see that now. My parents were immigrants in Canada and I absolutely believe I would have had a better life (in all aspects) if they had stayed in Europe.

  • I’m pleased to see a discussion of ROI’s vs degrees.

    A definition is useful: ROI = (Net Profit / Cost of Investment) x 100

    Therefore in Talia’s case, the value of her $50k english lit degree is zero.

    In fact it is (far) less than zero as she spent time (potential work experience) & money (now debt) to get this economically valueless degree.

    University education as the path to economic success? Caveat emptor.

    Talia would have been well advised to attempt to build a spreadsheet to determine post education finances prior to her degree. The value in completing this exercise is generated from asking the appropriate questions required to derive the assumptions rather than in figuring out the numbers. That said, an introduction to compound interest and its cousin, discounted cash flows would seem a useful exercise in itself.

    Further food for thought: if we are to follow the path advocated above (determine wages based on calced ROI’s, living wages, etc) you can be damn sure Yelp/Eat24 would be priced out of business. The premise that “everyone can make $50k” is then, by relying on returns generated via capitalism in order to create min $50k level of income levels, somewhat dubious.

  • Firstly, very good article.

    I don’t believe in bitching about being underpaid. Your wage is relative to the value you provide, so increase the value you provide or get closer to revenue (i.e sales job) and justify your increase in wage.

    Some people are simply majoring in shit degrees and complaining that they make 42k year over year and doing nothing to change it. I graduated from university in Ontario with zero debt (paid my tuition off myself as it was due), a random shit BA, already working for a local startup (making barely anything btw) and working on my side business which I now do full time.

    Harsh truth from my experience is this economy is for people that are super proactive hustlers, not those that want to graduate then demand a living wage that accommodates their social drinks twice a week and new jeans.

  • So inspired by your post! Up until I read this, I was totally a martyr type, and you just blew my mind!

    It is true that we are all basically fighting for the same thing, and it’s sad that the argument comes down to a question of who is “better” or more “deserving” instead of asking what we can do as a culture to promote living wages.

  • Hi Bridget,

    This is a reader from Singapore and I have to say this is the best written article I have seen on the conversation surrounding privilege. To conceptualize the idea of the bootstrapping millennial martyr complex in one post is amazing. I reckon this is a great read for all twenty- and thirty-somethings around the world!



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