I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day when I came across this article:
“How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”
The title sounded intriguing enough. (I’m a simple girl: When I see “millennials” and “burnout” in the same sentence, I click). The article, published on Buzzfeed, addresses the socio-economic and psychosocial phenomena millennials uniquely face as a generation.
Because part of my duty here at On The Dot Woman is to share (and help alleviate) the financial hardships of the millennial employee, I’d like to continue the conversation Buzzfeed author Anne Helen Peterson started by writing about how I got to where I am, and why my experience is reflective of the collective millennial “burnout” experience.
Firstly, Peterson describes “burnout” as the following:
"When we talk about millennial student debt, we’re not just talking about the payments that keep millennials from participating in American “institutions” like home ownership or purchasing diamonds. It’s also about the psychological toll of realizing that something you’d been told, and came to believe yourself, would be “worth it” — worth the loans, worth the labor, worth all that self-optimization — isn’t."
Secondly, it’s really important to define “millennial” here. A lot of people forget that “millennial” doesn’t have to just mean a single, 20-something Instagram influencer, but it can also mean a 30-something married dentist. A millennial is anyone that was born between 1981 and 1996. My sister, for example, was born in ’83, making her an older millennial. I was born in 1990.
Thirdly, it’s just as important to provide context for why my peers and I are burnt out. Peterson states the idea that we millennials grew up to know as “The American Dream”—what was fed to us and defined as optimal “success”—touted we go to college, go on to graduate school, find a job in our field (anything we wanted! Because the world was our oyster!), get married, save up to buy a house with our SO and live happily ever after.
My big sister sort of followed this path. She gained a spot in New York University’s highly coveted 7-year accelerated dental program. But I went in a different direction. I also went to NYU, but just for college, and I majored in Journalism with a minor in French.
I was so proud of myself for graduating with an awesome GPA from one of the most prestigious schools in the country. I was all like, Yay, Sheena! You did good, girl.
After graduating, though, I couldn’t find a job. I ended up taking an unpaid PR internship that promised me a small stipend eligible to receive upon my completion. I was a great intern, but they ended up never giving me the stipend.
A $300,000 degree in Journalism from NYU, the second most expensive private institution in the nation? All for what? For an unpaid internship at a sh*tty PR company?
After the internship ended—because I still couldn’t find a job in my field—I went on vacation in India for three months with my estranged father. A couple of months after coming back home to New York, I finally got a job, because a guy knew a guy who knew a guy.
I should have been celebrating, but I felt like sh*t. It took me a while to get over the fact that I didn’t land my first job because I was smart and talented enough, but because I was lucky enough to know the right people.
Even in a city as ripe with opportunity as Manhattan, it’s hard to get noticed. There’s so much damn competition, so many applicants for every opportunity. So. Many. And though the logical part of my brain knew this, the emotional part couldn’t help but feel upset and disappointed.
Throughout my early career, I'd wondered if getting my first real media job out of college would have been easier had I gone to grad school. (Like, my overly assertive Indian grandfather still tells me I should go to grad school. That’s partly why we don’t really speak).
But before he jumped on me for my life choices, he should have had a talk with my mother, who refused (and still refuses) to let me go to grad school because it’s, as she put it, “too damn expensive.”
Besides, I don’t think my mom could have afforded to put me through grad school. Even if she could, why the hell would she have wanted to? My mom was a single, full-time working mom who helped put my big sister of 7 years through grad school all on her own. My mother paid $140,000 out of pocket for my sister’s tuition. My sister, now a successful pediatric dentist (who teeters right on the border of millennial and Gen X-er), just finished paying off the remaining balance, which she took out in student loans. My sister is 35 and married with two young children.
My upbringing was quite cushy. I lived in a predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Long Island. But even a single-parent household that brought in over $200,000 monthly couldn’t afford grad school for its youngest child. Even at 18 years old I remember wondering, If we couldn’t afford it, who could?
My single, full-time working mom helped pay for the cost of half of my sister’s grad school: $140,000.
Before taking on my current gig as editor and content strategist here at On The Dot, I’d been living in Manhattan for nearly a decade. I loved almost everything about Manhattan…that is, except for the through-the-ROOF cost (and general hell) of renting an apartment in that city.
Rachel Herron, a 26-year-old living in Manhattan, knows this hell all too well. She paid $2,480 for a 2-bedroom apartment—which she ended up splitting with someone, of course (because who in their right mind would pay that much to live in Harlem?)—but in total, ended up paying nearly $5,000 as an upfront cost: a cost that included a ridiculous and unnecessary (yet non-negotiable) 15 percent broker’s fee because apartments in the building were renting fast.
(If I could bet ya anything, I’d bet people wanted to live in that apartment because it was safe. Harlem isn’t exactly the safest neighborhood at night, and a safe building is everything in Manhattan’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Harlem is supposed to be cheap, for Christ's sake).
Like Rachel, I was a broke Manhattanite living well beyond my means. Dude, my quality of life sucked. As a journalist at a media company, I was making an entry-level salary of just over $40,000. Yes, I was working at a job I loved, but I was also living in a $1,850 studio apartment of 450 square feet on the Upper East Side. It was a beautiful apartment, but one that my $40,000-a-year salary just couldn’t afford.
Now, I know what you’re going to say: Why didn’t you live with roommates? Well, I was 26. My peers were starting to get married and buy houses. (Thanks for confirming that, Instagram). It didn’t make sense to live with roommates because, like my married friends, I wanted to feel as if, in some sense, I’d “made it.” Dammit, I, too, wanted a place all of my own. I worked hard and I felt I deserved it. Except I was in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I couldn’t afford to.
And so, at 26 years old, I made the most logical move for my future I could think of: I moved down south to Dallas, Texas, to join my mother and sister until I could figure my life out. New York City—the city my university convinced me is the center of the universe, the city everyone dreams of living in but most don't get to (“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”), had officially priced me out and taken its toll on me. I felt like a failure.
My pricey education was beginning to feel like the biggest mistake.
My pricey education was beginning to feel like the biggest mistake.
In Dallas, my mom, my sister and I were like the Villanueva family in Jane the Virgin. Instead of being artificially inseminated and broke, though, I was just broke and living at my mom's.
But something unexpected happened down in D-Town. While in my transitory life phase, I fell in love with someone.
Ryan and I had a solid one year together in Texas before he realized he needed to move back to the northeast. He was barely making any money at his sales job in Dallas (a greater testament to the state of the market, not his sales prowess) and could no longer afford his rent. By December, I was watching him drive a U-haul all the way back to his hometown in Philadelphia, where he decided to move back in with his parents temporarily so he could save up some money. The plan? I was to join him up there eventually so we could get an apartment together.
The problem was, I couldn’t join him. You see, when I’d moved back home with my mom earlier that year, I wasn’t able to find a full-time journo job. I ended up freelancing for digital publications when I could, and I nannied two kids on the side. That’s how I supported myself in Dallas.
A $300,000 degree in Journalism from NYU, the second most expensive private institution in the nation? All for what? A $13/hr nanny job?!
In short, I was still broke, the way I had been exactly one year prior. This time, though, I was living at my mom’s, somehow found my way in the first truly serious relationship I’ve ever had, and was not doing what I was supposed to be doing professionally. My life was a millennial mess. I tried the long distance thing with Ryan, but it was always so hard because I never knew if (or when) I’d ever be able to move to Philly to be with him.
Still, we visited each other. I spent Christmas with his family. I was his date at his brother’s wedding. I gave him custody of the dog we rescued together. I loved him so freaking much.
I fervently applied to media jobs on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Indeed…and indeed—just as I’d thought—there were hardly any creative writing jobs in Philly.
Ryan and I broke up that April.
Our breakup hit me hard. I mean, if I just could’ve found a job in my field, a job that challenged me in the way I felt I deserved to be challenged, in a way that made me feel that $300,000 education was worth anything, in a way that made me feel I’d been working toward something my entire career, I could’ve been with the love of my life.
If only. But because I didn’t live in Philly, I often never made it past the first round of phone interviews I had with the companies there, and no company was willing to pay to fly me out for an in-person interview. I was absolutely crushed.
After the breakup, I began to apply to jobs in Dallas and Austin, because Austin is cool and I knew it. Plus, if I were to get a job in Austin, I could at least drive there for an in-person interview. Sure enough, by June, I got a job offer from a women's media company in Austin. I took the job. I packed all my crap into a car, drove down to Austin and, within two weeks, started my new job as an editor, despite not having had a stable writing job since 2016.
Austin was a city I’d heard takes all the good parts of good ol’ NY and skips right over the bad parts. I’m really glad I followed my heart on this one, because boy, was I right. This quirky, beautiful city, with its year-round sunshine and gorgeous weather, amazing people (and even better Mexican food), dog-friendly establishments, and youthful and energetic vibe won me over within my first six months living here.
My current role as an editor at a start-up is challenging. I’ve never been an editor before. This January makes it my seventh month in Austin, and since then, I’ve helped writers grow their voices, spoken on a panel that addresses millennials in the workplace, have learned how to create a work-life balance for myself, and have a much, much better quality of life.
I’m 28 years old now. For the first time in a very long time, I feel like I’ve achieved some semblance of success.
Millennials work hard. We’ve always done what we were told to do, but that didn’t exactly help us get to where we’ve always wanted to be.
The beauty about millennials is we’re all different. Every millennial defines “success” on his or her own terms:
My sister the dentist.
My ex-boyfriend the salesman (who’s finally saved up enough while living at home to live on his own).
Anne Helen Peterson (a writer living in Montana).
Any woman On The Dot has ever featured.
We’re married but still paying off loans, about to turn 30 and moving out of our parents’ home, creative freelancers, struggling entrepreneurs, and 9-5ers who work from home because they have a stupid disorder called Fibromyalgia.
Here’s my best advice on how to keep your anxiety levels low, your back account high and your mood even higher:
Screw the system. There’s no “right” way to do something and there’s no wrong way. Forget NYU; go because you want to, not because it’s the best. Forget grad school; go because you can genuinely afford to, not because you think it’ll help you get a better job. Even if you do things the “right” way, there will be no guarantees.
Even if you do things the “right” way, there will be no guarantees.
~RELOCATE! I did and honestly, I’m so much happier. I can actually afford to live on my own now, and have a much better quality of life than I did up north: a $1200 studio apartment with a huge, clean dog park as my backyard, and all the ~hip~ bars just down the street. No more paying $2000 a month for a (mouse-infested!!!) shoebox. No more breathing in dirty garbage air. No more frigid, lonely, costly New York winter. Just me, my dog, and happiness. (So what if my life doesn’t look cool enough for the ‘gram?) I don’t care and neither should you.
Stay the f*@! off Instagram. PLEASE, for God’s sake, stay off that damn thing. All I see are couples that look happy and like they have it all together, and it just makes me feel awful about myself. The worst part is I bet those couples hate each other and are only posting so many pictures of themselves because they need to show everyone else that they’ve “made it.”
Back when I was living in New York, I gained a pretty decent social media following by writing for the Internet. As the amount of people who followed me went up and up, so did my anxiety levels. The more "social media famous" I got, the less happy I was. Don’t let anybody tell you your worth is equal to the amount of Instagram followers you have. Ya hear me?
~Set some damn boundaries with your boss. No, really. Stick it to the man. Advocate for a work-life balance that will make you both happy and productive at the same time.
~Leave a gig if it just isn’t working out. Whether your job sucks, your boss is a horrible person or you just aren’t making enough money, you absolutely do not deserve to stay at a job that isn’t working out. Know your worth. Then, add tax.
I want The American Dream. I want a big, beautiful house, with a backyard big enough for my dog, in a safe neighborhood, with the love of my life. I’ll look like I’ve “made it” when I’ve got all of that. But damnit, am I working hard AF for it.
I’m too poor to live in New York City. I don’t have a million Instagram followers. My nails aren’t freshly manicured, and I’m sure as sh*t not engaged. To others, it may not look like I’ve made it, but for the first time ever, I feel like I’ve finally “made it.” Because feeling like you've "made it" as a millennial doesn't necessarily look like you've made it, and looking like you've made it doesn't necessarily feel like you've made it.
I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But then again, what millennial does?