We Won’t Survive The Status Quo: The Argument Against Moderates

Jessica O'Keefe
Dec 19, 2019 · 11 min read

My husband and I met at the small, private college we both attended when I was a freshman in 2008. He had long, shaggy blonde hair and a big smile that made me like him instantly. Everyone knew Ben O’Keefe, Ben-O for short. He was a frat boy, but not in the obnoxious Hollywood-portrayal kind of way. He was always good for a laugh, poured shots generously at parties, and he had a great taste in music. Even if you didn’t know him well, he still felt like an old friend. He was awarded Homecoming King, he was actively involved in campus activities, and he was (and is) incredibly smart.

Photo by Gustavo Zambelli on Unsplash

Shortly after graduating in 2010, the guy who seemingly had it all, found himself living in a Hyundai Elantra at 22. Ben and his girlfriend at the time found out they were pregnant towards the end of his senior year. Things didn’t work out between them, but he knew he needed to stick around to have a hand in raising his son. It was never a question of whether or not he should stay, but how? It was certainly a challenge. The town he wound up in was small and severely lacking in opportunity. Aldi wouldn’t even hire him. He had a degree from a respected institution, experience from hard-earned internships, and the local grocer wouldn’t give him a fucking interview.

He was still poor when we reconnected in 2012, but he had an apartment and a steady income. He wasn’t necessarily ashamed of his story, but he didn’t tell a lot of people about it either. This isn’t at all surprising. That period of his life was dark and indescribably lonely, especially when juxtaposed to his former life as Homecoming King. When he did take the time to rehash his story to family members and old friends, he was often met with the same refrain…

“I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve been there.”

At this point you might be wondering why I’m airing my husband’s dirty laundry in an article whose title clearly indicates that I’m attempting to sway your political opinion. I’m doing this (with his permission, of course) because Ben’s story is not at all uncommon. In fact, to many people our age, being on the brink of homelessness is pretty darn relatable.

Real lives get lost within the endless stream of negative political articles, confusing statistics related to income inequality, and the undeniable partisanship that has fractured our every day lives. The unfortunate part about that is, these real lives and the stories that stem from them, are the only thing that can truly change hearts and minds. Empathy and progress is only achieved when a person can connect with and understand someone else’s journey.

I’d like to introduce you, reader, to a few of my friends and some stories that deserve to be told. It’s so difficult to break through the noise, but there’s a very good reason to try. Even if sanity prevails in the next election, is it enough to go back to the way things were? Is reverting back to the status quo an option?

“I truly cannot imagine a time in my life when I will not be paying my student loans. I have a lot. A LOT. Those are never going away. The reality that I will be paying on my student loans WHILE I am paying my children’s tuition is basically guaranteed, barring some sort of unlikely bipartisan miracle.” Adam, 31.

Adam is one of my best friends. He’s an attorney and, occasionally, he dedicates his time to helping victims of spousal abuse.

“All I’m saying is, you can’t handicap Millennial (and soon to be GenZ) finances and then chastise them for failing to participate in the economy.” Christine, 32.

Christine is my best friend’s better half. She’s also an attorney, and dedicates her time improving health systems from the inside. She’s adamant that, if she didn’t have to worry about health care premiums or parental leave, she could put that money towards consumer goods.

“Ask me the last time I bought a tv,” Christine added. “— never is the answer.”

A majority of the friends that offered to share their stories with me brought up the crippling issue of student debt. To anyone my age or younger, this was unsurprising. To someone who hasn’t been to school in several decades, I could rattle off some statistics about the realities of skyrocketing college tuition or the lack of financial support, but I’d rather you grasp the consequence of those issues through my friend’s experiences.

“I refer to my student loan debt as my mortgage, and that’s really sad. I have a good, well-paying job, but I live paycheck to paycheck because the more I make, the more they take.” Chelsi, 30

“I’ve always wanted the house with the picket fence and kids, embarrassed by my PTA participation. But I’m drowning in student loan debt and exorbitant rent. How can I even begin to consider a mortgage or a child?” Shae, 24

“My salary is absurd for someone with a college degree, soon to be master’s degree. I pay 60% of my monthly income in rent, my benefits are so ridiculous that I’ve had to take credit cards out for medical bills, and I can’t afford to buy a house/car. I’ve JUST gotten out of credit card debt, which I had to do in order to pay for life.” Jordan, 29

“I’m better off than a lot of people on the student loan front, but when I first hit the job market, I had to consolidate my unsubsidized loans into a single payment since I was making poverty level wages. The interest on that is 6.8%, and none of the refinance options that I’ve seen are interested in doing much better. Even decreasing that interest by a couple percentage points would cut years off my repayment schedule.” Stefan, 32

What would the erasure of student debt mean to individuals, what would it mean for the rest of America?

“Student loans are debilitating. In the micro: saving is almost impossible when combined with the insanely high cost of rent. My economic participation would be astronomically higher should that debt go away. In the macro: erasing the debt of millions of people would be a MASSIVE boon to the economy because that money would be spent on housing, services, and consumer goods which are all exponentially better drivers of economic growth.” Jeremy, 29

“Wiping that debt would massively change the quality of life for everyone under 40, including those who already paid off their loans or never had them. It’d be a boost to everyone older than 40 whose businesses and retirement accounts would benefit from the increase in spending, plus the likelihood that they’ll be able to sell their house at a high value when they retire.” Colin, 34

In addition to student debt, healthcare and retirement concerns were at the very top of the list.

“I’m lucky enough to be covered by work but my husband (a freelance audio engineer) gets nothing. To be put on my insurance, it would be $800 a month! Instead, he is forced to go through the marketplace which is charging him between $600-$700 a month in 2020.” Meagan, 30

“Don’t get me wrong, I took the loans out, so I know it’s my responsibility, but when you pay the statement and far less than half of that payment goes to the principle, the majority goes to the interest they charge each month. Then, you are systematically cheated into a bill that no normal person can pay off in a reasonable amount of time. Even with a new job, and technically being labeled as a middle class man, after taxes and rent, my loans devour a savings that should go to my retirement.” Daniel, 30

“I am fully aware that I will be unable to retire from working in education, but nothing else fulfills me like this does. My parents are getting older; I know that they’ll need a certain level of care in a few years and that I’ll need to subsidize that. It’ll come from my retirement savings and being that I have no dependents, I’ll die working.” Tony, 32

One of the most striking and raw conversations I had about healthcare involved parental leave, childbirth, and postpartum care. For many people in their 20s and 30s, childbirth is simply not an option. Many of us would love to start families, but the financial burden makes it an impossibility.

“I would consider adopting children. My school JUST negotiated 2 WEEKS of adoption unpaid leave in our newest contract. Before it was 0.” Lindsay, 33 “Teachers around here try to have babies in mid-April so they can take their 6 weeks and then have all summer before returning.”

Support for new mothers is severely lacking in every aspect. Paid leave is insufficient, medical care is wanting, childcare is astronomically expensive, the list goes on.

“I have to say, with my miscarriage, I can’t imagine a woman on a fixed income going through this hell unpaid.” Michelle, 35

Michelle is my former boss and a very close friend of mine. I’ve always looked up to her, but the strength she’s exhibited through this painful time in her life has left me speechless on several occasions. She was 9 weeks and 1 day along in her pregnancy when she miscarried. Although she has a solid support system in her personal life, and her professional life, the experience has been an eye-opener.

“I’ve been off, paid for two weeks now. My heart breaks for women who don’t have this and may not have paid family leave. I can tell you; this effected me more than I could ever have imaged; it’s seriously a life-changing experience. Had both Johnny and I not had that time to grieve and heal together, I honestly don’t think I would be in a good place. It brought Johnny and I closer together, and there’s a real chance the opposite could be true if we both didn’t have the support of our employers- my employer happens to be a Republican political firm with under 50 employees, so we don’t fall under FMLA. They were so compassionate and made the conscious decision to afford me the time I needed to heal, no questions asked. I think it’s important for people to know that paid family leave isn’t just something Democrats think about, there is Republican support too. I keep thinking of a woman who is paid hourly and doesn’t get paid if she doesn’t work. Imagine her miscarrying through a shift (I’ve heard of this happening in the support message boards I’m on- basically going through literal fucking labor just to be paid.) Sure, maybe she can take what PTO she might have left, but let’s be real, it’s probably just a few days. Everyone heals differently. One woman might be okay to work through physical and emotional pain, but why should she? Why do we have to prove our worth?”

Childbirth is a danger in and of itself. In fact, women in the United States are 50% more likely to die from childbirth or other pregnancy-related causes compared to their mothers before them. Postnatal care and support for new moms is also not a priority.

“When we had our daughter, Devin was only able to stay home for 5 days — anything beyond that would be unpaid and we just couldn’t afford it since my pay was already being decreased for my maternity leave. So, after 5 days, I was left alone to heal after a difficult labor, take care of a newborn baby, still meet our dog’s needs, and manage household tasks all by myself. As a result I ended up really struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression in that first month — and still have tough/bad days. I wasn’t in any condition to care for my myself, let alone my daughter but we were forced to make a decision — mental wellness or financial wellness.” Vicki, 31

Several friends questioned the viability and ethics of raising a family in a world where bloated corporations and rich politicians feel they have the luxury of ignoring the greatest issue we face today, climate change.

“Will my son be able to grow up and thrive on a dying planet?” Meghan, 29

“I have a deep-rooted dread and guilt towards the idea of bringing children into a world that I think is literally dying. The idea of being a father is one of the aspects of my future I’m most excited about and that excitement is at a grinding halt due to crushing fear of the future any children might potentially have.” Matt, 29

The here and now isn’t all doom and gloom. There are companies that are doing the right thing and implementing progressive, meaningful policies to support families. Unfortunately, they’re few and far between.

“Josh’s company just implemented up to eight weeks paid paternity leave. He only received two weeks when Colton was born, but he opted to take four weeks when Bailey arrived. Having him home for so long (especially after having a C-section, a newborn and a toddler) was a huge help. And he was able to bond with the new baby longer and not miss out on all of her newness.” Becca, 29

The individuals who were kind enough to share a piece of their lives with me, and with you, are all hard-working, gifted, compassionate, intelligent people. They all have families, people that love them. They all have needs and wants, most of which aren’t being met by the status quo.

“I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve been there.”

Here we are. We are telling you now. Many of us are not thriving. Some of us, in fact, are barely surviving. We are asking you to be there.

I know we are living in terrifying times, and most of us are scared and tired and just want all of this to be done and over with already! People like Trump will come and go, but those who refuse to challenge the status quo will be around forever. Going back to the way things were before may feel like a warm cup of tea on a cold day to some people. To younger generations, our struggles will continue if we go back to business as usual.

“Nothing will fundamentally change.” Joe Biden, 77

On a Tuesday evening, Joe Biden sat in a room full of well-to-do men and women and assured them that things wouldn’t really change if he were elected President of the United States. I have to imagine the men and women Biden addressed don’t want for much. They don’t feel existential dread like I do when the car repairman calls me to give a final total. They won’t express worry to their significant other, like my husband does when he has a cough that lasts for weeks and will likely lead to a doctor’s visit. They don’t wonder, like many of my friends do, whether or not they’re financially stable enough to pay for one little disaster like a broken furnace or busted laptop.

It’s fair to wonder why my opinion matters. Why does the opinion of a teacher, or a PR professional, or even a lawyer, like the ones quoted above, make a difference? Because, I’m your daughter, who doesn’t know if she can afford to have a family. Because the lawyer is your son who just wants to save up enough to buy a house. Because, we are the future and we deserve to thrive like the generations that preceded us.

Boring statistics, endless debates, and fights over policy may not sway you, but the way all of those things impact the lives of your loved ones should. We are asking you to be brave. We are asking you to believe that big, structural change is possible. We are begging you not to settle for the status quo.

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Jessica O'Keefe

Written by

When her ADHD allows, Jess loves to write in her spare time. She lives with her husband and three fuzzy loves in Pittsburgh, PA.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Jessica O'Keefe

Written by

When her ADHD allows, Jess loves to write in her spare time. She lives with her husband and three fuzzy loves in Pittsburgh, PA.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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