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Millennials: Shake Off the Shame!

The US Census Bureau recently released a report reveals that, since the beginning of the financial crisis, a growing number of Americans are living with roomates or relatives. The greater part of this increase has come from adult children living with their parents. Millennials, this is about you.

The fact that so many Millennial adults are living with their parents partially hides the fact that our generation has been plunged into a level of unemployment and poverty with no parallel since the Great Depression. If poverty status were determined by personal income, 45.3 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 would qualify as living in poverty.Clearly, we are living in a different economic age than the one that many of us were raised to expect.

So many of my generation know from experience how terrible it feels to be scraping by on an absurdly low income, unable to afford both student loan payments and groceries. What is even more demoralizing is that many of us have virtually no income, and millions are forced to rely on parents and relatives to provide even the most basic needs while we work unpaid internships or desperately search for work. No matter how you slice it, being broke is awful.
But lack of money is not the worst of it. The truth is, most people my age are coming to terms with our economic diminishment. We know that we will probably never be as materially prosperous as our parents were, but we know that this is not necessarily a tragedy. We are acutely aware of the environmental, social and health impacts of the consumerist binge of the late 20th century, and many of us do not feel deprived to not be able to participate. On the contrary, thrift is increasingly becoming a virtue, and care for the earth is a very real consideration in our spending choices. We are willing to pay more, and to live less luxuriously, if it means that we can inhabit a healthier, more sustainable world.
So, if many of us are content living with less, what is the problem? One word: Jobs. I am confident that my generation can thrive in a world where unrestrained luxury gives way to global responsibility and sustainability. That is the world that we want to live in. But being chronically jobless or underemployed is not sustainable. The prolonged drought of meaningful employment is tearing my generation down in slow motion.It is crippling us professionally, emotionally and spiritually. And we will bear the scars for decades to come.

In his new book, End This Depression Now!, economist Paul Krugman observes that, “People who want to work but can’t find work suffer greatly, not just from the loss of income but from a diminished sense of self-worth.” The youngest cohort of adults today are not simply facing a loss of income, we are facing a loss of meaning. Who are we? What is our purpose? What value do we offer a society that tells us repeatedly and simultaneously: “We don’t need you,” and “Why don’t you grow up?”

There do not seem to be any easy answers to the challenges that we are facing on the level of economics and public policy. It may be many years before the job market returns to what was once considered “normal.” In the meantime, however, we Millennials are going to have to make sense of our lives, often in the absence of meaningful employment. What might this look like? How can we shed the shame and feelings of personal failure that come with un(der)employment and begin to look for ways to empower ourselves, regardless of the economic outlook?
If anything is clear by now, it is that older generations are not going to provide us with systems of meaning. It might be tempting to go into a holding pattern, to cross our fingers and hope that our economy and sense of core values will eventually recover. But I do not think that is good strategy. Instead, how might we focus our energies to create the just, healthy, sustainable and meaningful society that we long for? The answer to this question will undoubtably involve a lot of tough, entreprenurial work – work that will go largely unsupported by the dying systems and institutions that are clawing for survival right now. Birthing a new society in the crumbling ruins of the old will not be easy.

But I believe we can do it. Time and again, older generations have asked us, “when will you grow up?” Now is the time to demonstrate that we aregrown – but that our adulthood does not conform to 20th century assumptions. We can model a responsible, sustainable adulthood that produces the fruits of justice: A society in which the poor are not crushed, the earth is not ravished, and there is meaningful work for everyone who is willing to contribute. The time has come to shake off the shame that we have lived under for so long and to embrace the power that is latent in our generation, if only we will choose to exercise it.