The prosperous young millennial fallacy
Why media outlets should stop featuring affluent young people
Recently, an article from CNN Money plopped into view as I opened a browser tab on Microsoft Edge, and it caught my eye instantly. Titled “Here’s the budget breakdown of a 34-year-old who makes $150,000”, it chronicles the life and financial choices of a millennial living in New York City. As a high-power “brand consultant,” she helps companies with their marketing strategies. Simply put, another version of a Sex and the City character.
Further into the article, you meet the main character, Dijana Ilieva, who comes from an immigrant family. She is quoted as having the ability to “hustle,” something reminiscent of the millennial generation as pivotal to survival and advancement to middle class. She learned how to hustle and work hard from meager upbringings, the article says.
As you progress further, you’ll see the choices that she makes with her money is strongly influenced by her family, and though subtly put, her money-driven mentality. “Every dollar I spend, I think of how I can make three dollars to cover it,” she says.
She dabbled in cryptocurrency and made money from that. She also receives free meals from clients on a regular basis. She volunteers on the board at a local nonprofit. She saves about 10–15% of her salary for retirement. She takes vacations every year. In sum, this woman has it all. She’s making money and making a difference in her community, while enjoying life’s pleasures.
This is an incredible story…it’s also incredibly unrealistic. Every time I come across one of these articles, it makes my blood boil, not so much because I am a millennial, but because these types of stories are not common. Featuring selected young people who achieve astronomical things by their early thirties feeds into the idea that anyone can make it with a little bit of hustling, and while there is some truth to that, there is also the underlying reality that only a small percentage of people in their mid-thirties actually make $150,000 per year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many millennials are struggling as a result of graduating during the great recession of 2008. Some of us are still living with our parents or share housing with five other people. Not many are fortunate enough to live in one of the most expensive cities in America in a two-bedroom apartment by themselves for just (merely) $2400 per month.
A few things came to mind — first, how does someone go from working in a grocery store to a job in marketing, despite earning an associate’s degree in nursing?
Secondly, I wondered how someone knew to start a 401k account in her early twenties. As a typical millennial, I wasn’t even aware of the benefits of retirement accounts that companies offer when I was in my early twenties; nor did I think much about retirement in general when I was twenty-three.
Lastly, how does someone manage to spend less on groceries per month than they do on transportation? Does she shop at Wal-Mart? Does she get free groceries?
Free meals from clients. Yes, that’s right.
Stories like these play into the illusion that money equals happiness. That is far from the truth. Sure, money does provide feelings of security, something that based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is what we as humans all desire, but it is not a solution for happiness. Stories like Dijana’s are a rarity simply because not every millennial is equipped to make such sound financial decisions. The majority of millennials do not have a retirement account, and if they do, do not possess enough funds to be able to retire well. It all comes down to the privilege of having money in the first place. Many of us do not have reliable resources such as a brother to give us investment advice. And not many of us have the resources for a free gym membership, expenses we can write off, and consistent free dining opportunities.
In short, this is a story about the privileged and how they continue to be privileged, and she is one of them. If CNN hopes to convey a rags-to-riches story, they have truly failed.
Do I feel a pang of jealousy that this woman makes that much money as a 34-year-old? Of course I do. But I also know that my perception of happiness has nothing to do with how much money I make every year, but what I gained from my life experiences. By other measures of prosperity, I feel that my life is rich and fulfilling, and I wish that the media aren’t so keen on featuring individuals living a fancy, single, no-dependent lifestyle as the one to emulate. I wish CNN and other major news outlets would feature individuals who holds a more realistic financial profile. These kind of articles are what makes ordinary Joes (or Janes, like myself) feel demoralized and undercut by life’s opportunities. It’s time that they find normal, everyday people who are facing real personal finance challenges.