Who are we? The disillusioned youth of the new American dystopia

Dear Mr. Friedman,

I recently read your article “Who are we” in the editorial section of the New York Times. I am compelled to respond to a comment you made in the piece about young people who are being won over by politicians so against what you call “the pillars of American strength.” I don’t know if it was intended to be one, but as a millennial, it felt very much like another dig at our expense (we’re used to those by now). While you are clearly a very intelligent man with a great depth of experience, perhaps the reason you don’t understand the rise of these men is because you’re not looking at America through the same lens that our experience, as the youth of America, commands us to view it, though. If you care to see what we see please keep reading, but buyer beware, it’s not pretty.

As children of the 80’s and 90’s, we were ushered into an age of explosive capitalistic growth and greed. We were told that to succeed we had to not only get good grades in high school but we had to engage in a multitude of extracurricular activities to be well-rounded enough to get into a good school. Personally, I wrote for the school paper, was involved in student government, played soccer, founded a school retreat, volunteered, participated in drama and held three part-time jobs, all this to make me competitive to get into college. These pressures have only gotten worse for younger millennials today. For all that hard work many of were rewarded with offers to great schools, but exponential education costs caused us to go deeply into debt for an education that we were now being told would no longer afford us an advantage in life but merely serve as an entry requirement. Despite feeling like someone had just changed the rules of the game we were playing in the middle of it, we rolled with the punches.

During our college years a group of politicians we had no say in electing decided they would spend trillions on a war that we knew as “dumb” college kids was a sham for corporate oil profits. While a tiny fraction of that money could have paid for every single one of us to attend college, we walked away with unprecedented student loan debt and even got the ancillary benefit of watching our friends be sent to die so Haliburton could line their pockets through a nice government contract.

Despite it all, we graduated with resilient spirits ready to show the world all that we are capable of, except years of de-regulation by corrupt politicians and the actions of a few criminally greedy bankers cratered the American economy and caused the second worst stock market collapse in our country’s history. During this period, we witnessed our parents life savings be decimated to nothing before their very eyes just before retirement and our job market completely disappear just in time for us to start paying back those historically high loans.

While its hard to call a very low paying job in a very expensive city lucky, I was one of the blessed few of my generation to claim a full-time job out of college, and at a respected company in an industry, I wanted to work in no less. Like most of my millennial counterparts, I set out to make a name for myself and work hard. I worked upwards of 90 hours a week for large portions of the year and did so as an “exempt” employee despite knowing legally I should have been entitled to receive overtime. I didn’t attempt to address the issue since I knew it was all about “putting in my dues”, besides, where would complaining get me in a world where jobs are so hard to come by?

Despite the number of accomplishments I could tout, the record success the company was having and 8 years of pouring my heart and soul into everything I did at the company, my salary had barely budged outside of inflation-based raises and questions of growth and development were met with deafening silence. I wasn’t the only one this was happening to; they were doing it to all of us. Every dollar, every benefit, and every perk was being sucked dry by the executives in the top of the company trying hard to do the best impression of the greedy bankers on Wall Street. Productivity was through the roof, the company was securing incredible profits and wages for their workers were non-existent. They couldn’t have cared less about any of us. I left, utterly disillusioned by the entire experience.

This is more than just “my” story, this is the new cut-throat capitalistic dystopian version of the American dream your generation has bestowed upon us.

We, the youth of this nation, now live in an America where, when we ask for a reward for doing great work and generating increased profits for our company, we’re denigrated as lazy and entitled by executives as they line their pockets with the money we made them. We may be young, but we’re not dumb.

Mr. Friendman, you talk about the pillars of American strength, but what about social mobility and the ideal that if you work hard you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and achieve success in this country? You cannot, with all due respect, speak of American strength and not mention this, and yet it has been so completely erased from the reality of American life. Once again, the rules have seemingly changed just as we arrive on the scene.

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This brings me back to your question of why as youth we are more ready to throw our support behind anti-establishment candidates like Sanders, Trump or Cruz.

While I am equally mystified at the appeal of Ted Cruz, what is so endearing about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is their visible disgust and disdain towards a broken system.

In your article, you slam Bernie Sanders for not encouraging entrepreneurship and risk-taking, but I think you’re missing his point. He doesn’t want to punish risk takers; he wants to create a society in which people feel safe to take risks. How can we as youth largely in the position I’ve just described to you above possibly think about taking risks when the majority of us are swimming in a lifetime of debt before we even finish school? A society that took care to ensure its young bright energetic minds didn’t begin their journey into the real world a mile behind the starting blocks would encourage the entrepreneurship you claim he is lacking in his message. He may not be explicitly state it, but it’s there. How can you expect people to take a risk and go it on their own when the tiniest medical issue from a single day without medical coverage is risking financial ruin at the hands of a corrupt for-profit medical system? The type of society Bernie Sanders wants to create would bring out the best in American entrepreneurship because it would strip away some of the fear of going your own way.

Your criticism of Sanders continues by assessing firmly that “we’re not socialists” yet one of our most celebrated presidents in American history who led the country out of the great depression did so with a socialist agenda. FDR’s new deal not only saved a deeply scarred American economy but, much like our American Revolution and democratic founding, it was copied by nations all over the world as an ideal model for governance. Some of the European countries that adopted his policies have yet to look back and today they are in a lot of ways model societies. Meanwhile, we reversed course from the greatest period of growth in American history that brought us successful programs like Social Security and instead bought into the idea of trickle down economics. We’ve been collectively sitting under a faucet for the past 35 years now waiting for the slightest drip to reach us while the richest among us sit on their thrones twisting the handles tight and pinching the hoses so we don’t see so much as a dime.

Yes, as you note, Bernie sanders firmly asserts that wall street is rigged and built on fraud. I understand that you think this is excessive but when we see bankers who destroyed the economy and our job market get bailed out instead of jail time and handed bonuses instead of pink slips, all while we wake up to lenders harassing us if we’re a day late on student loan payments we scratch out heads. A couple years ago we witnessed a house and senate engaging in what was essentially insider trading, we’re all too familiar by now with the idea of pump and dump and the practice of shorting stocks. If all that wasn’t enough to make us deeply distrustful of Wall Street, every day we wake up we see a stock market take what little retirement money we have on a roller coaster ride that would make even the most courageous of heart sick to their stomach. So when Sanders stands up and says the system is rigged, it aligns pretty accurately with our experience of America so far and how we’re feeling. While we certainly don’t know if he is the answer, he at least doesn’t think democracy is up for sale to the highest bidder, which is more than I can say for the rest of them.

As to Trump, while I can’t say I don’t think those supporting him are misguided in their reasoning, I understand it. Trump represents the American capitalistic greed we’ve been raised with and the success so many of us youth have been fighting desperately to achieve. He’s what the 80’s and 90’s taught us to aspire to be. His image aligns with our version of what it is to succeed in America. He tells us he can give that to us too, and while we don’t know if we can believe him, we KNOW we can’t believe the other guys so might as well give him a shot. We love him because his disdain and disregard for the establishment insider politicians are almost equal to ours. We watch as he swats American politicians like annoying flies. While I disagree with him virtually 100% of the time and could never see myself voting for him, I relate more to my conservative millennial counterpart who supports Trump than any of the others on that side because, like us, he views the establishment as a complete and utter joke and treats them that way. I can get behind that.

The bottom line, which it doesn’t appear you or anyone else can grasp about us is that we know that the system only works for the privileged few because throughout our entire lives we’ve been nothing but burned by it. While we’d certainly prefer to fix it, if it came down to continuing along the same path with the same establishment cronyism or tearing it all down and creating a new system even with all the potential pain that could cause, we’d still prefer the latter. And they say millennials don’t know anything about sacrifice…