Why Millennial Precarity Should Change The Way We Think About Class

The veneer of success, Millennials know, is not the same as actually having it.

“I live in a basement studio apartment and my bank account says $9.24 with $5 in my savings and I’m buying a Prius next week and I feel guilty for buying non-organic produce at 365,” said 30-year-old Elyse. Though she pokes fun at the rhetoric hurled at millennials, her words are true. Knowing only the superficial details of Elyse’s life — a woman of color who works as a model with glamorous good looks and the wardrobe to match, as well as the author of two books of poetry — one would never guess this to be her situation. And yet, for many millennials, this situation is all too familiar. The veneer of success, millennials know, is not the same as actually having it.

“The forgotten men and women of our country — people who work hard but no longer have a voice: I am your voice,” Donald Trump said in 2016 during the Republican National Convention. These “forgotten” people were the white working class voters scapegoated for whisking Trump into the White House, and the reality is that whenever class is mentioned in the media, the spotlight has been focused squarely on the conservative white working class. Left out of the conversation are people of color and the pressing issue of millennial downward mobility, which is not often framed as a class issue.

Why the reluctance to discuss millennials’ poor financial prospects in terms of class? It is because in several ways, many millennials carry with them certain markers of privilege often unconsciously associated with class status, including cultural tastes, appearance, education — what has been termed cultural capital in sociology. Many millennials simply don’t look the part, and our oversimplified hierarchical model of class makes it harder to address these specificities.

Why the reluctance to discuss millennials’ poor financial prospects in terms of class?

With the bleak future millennials are facing, it must be asked: Will the cultural capital of middle classness retain the same meaning as the middle class in America continues to erode? Or will class culture and consciousness evolve?

The millennial generation — the youngest of whom are 22, while the eldest are 37 — faces both a current grim material reality and a downwardly mobile future. In 2014, 49% of young Americans born between 1981–1996 reported identifying as lower or lower middle class, as opposed to just 25% before the economic crash in 2008. Often millennials’ financial predicament is either undermined (“they’re entitled!”) or painted as completely hopeless (“they’re screwed!”). But millennials’ harsh reality is that, despite middle class beginnings, their poverty is often a product of downward mobility.

Millennials who didn’t start off poor have often not only led different lives, but also have very different privileges. Though they are the most educated generation, with 34% having at least a college degree, millennials are also sentenced to a lifetime of scorn as a result of being unusually accomplished. The cultural capital many millennials carry with them has made them appear less financially insolvent to older generations, and while they face similar struggles to those who have always been working class, they are blamed for their own failure to thrive because of their cultural capital.

Political scientist Charles Murray wrote in his book Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960–2010 that from the midcentury on, an upper class defined itself away from a lower class mainly through obtaining higher education, but also through the development of highbrow tastes and predilections. While this post-Civil Rights era is unique in that higher education became more accessible for all, in fact, the rich and bourgeois have a much longer history of not only distinguishing themselves from the poor, but also from each other. This history stems back centuries, perpetuated by conspicuous consumption and cultural attitudes. Class distinctions remain even today, and cultural capital absorbed from a middle class life — speech, mannerisms, comportment, education, style, and so on — is indeed a privilege.

The rich and middle class do not have to contend with the compounded stresses of poverty, for example. Stress physically ages the body faster, making poorer people have older “biological ages.” Even facially, people can recognize class difference due to the long-term effects of stress causing premature aging as well as frown and worry lines. Wealthier people are also thinner than their poorer counterparts, which makes them more likely to get hired. And because they often have better access to health care, they tend to be healthier. Appearance is especially important for women, who are more likely to be discriminated against based on looks, paid less, and stuck in precarious jobs. These privileges traditionally made those with cultural capital the most likely to be upwardly mobile.

Race also makes a significant difference. Black middle class millennials become working class more often than their white peers, and black and Latino millennials are worse off overall, as many already start out less wealthy than white millennials. 30-year-old Ashley, a black biracial queer woman originally from Oklahoma, said that race — along with gender and sexuality — played a huge role in her poverty and suffering, asserting that racism and sexism contributed to her not getting support she desperately needed:

“They don’t give a shit about anyone who isn’t a rich cishet white guy. There are virtually no safety nets in place [in Oklahoma], even more if you are single and without children. I wanted to leave, but I had no idea how I’d even begin to make the money I’d need. I was left in a vulnerable situation, and I was suicidal multiple times because of it. […] I got out. I’m still alive. But a lot of people aren’t.”

Millennials, unlike the American poor imagined to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” do not believe their financial predicament will change, and have stopped worshipping at the altar of the American Dream. However, downwardly mobile millennials, like the poor, are often judged for what they do choose to spend money on. Take the infamous avocado toast debacle, in which Tim Gurner, Australian millionaire (and before him, fellow Australian Bernard Salt), castigated millennials for failing to buy homes because of their spending on “smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each.” Overnight, avocado toast became a symbol for “everything good, bad, elitist [and] humble,” according to writer John Birdsall, embodying the brewing ambivalence about millennials. Avocado toast represented all the small ways millennials — through overreaching their station in life — failed to achieve financial solvency due to their own fecklessness.

While according to data, millennials do go out to eat often, the perception of this data has been that millennials “prefer to spend money on experiences” rather than on “big ticket items” such as houses. The media hilariously frames this as the personal choice of millennials , rather than the fact that avocados and houses are hardly comparable expenses. Millennials “killing” industries singlehandedly extends from this idea that they prefer experiences and convenience, and it suggests the entitlement of complete agency when really it’s often due to the necessity of controlled purse strings.

These assertions of millennial entitlement contrast with the much bleaker headlines. The bizarre split in the media landscape between “entitled” and “screwed” is precisely because of what is happening with millennials and class; it is a reflection of how downwardly mobile millennials’ class status requires a both/and logic to unpack fully, rather than a binary of either/or. There is both privilege and precarity here.

Millennials ‘killing’ industries…suggests the entitlement of complete agency when really it’s often due to the necessity of controlled purse strings.

There is a difference between how downwardly mobile millennials are treated in the media versus the working class — both are admonished for failing to measure up to middle class standards, but there is significant anger towards millennials because they were supposed to meet those standards and fell short. The sheer amount of hand wringing about millennials failing to reach “adulthood” signifies this. In reality, though, the markers of adulthood that are always mentioned — buying a home, a car, investments, saving for retirement — stand in for middle class status, an odd slippage that is rarely parsed out. The implication is that to be poor is to be infantilized, no matter if one is a millennial or not.

The infantilization of millennials, most notably, comes from the oft-asserted statement that millennials rely on their parents, and even live with them well into adulthood. This often does not apply to millennials of color. Melissa, a 25-year-old Asian-American photographer living in New York City said:

“My family was relatively well off until 2008 […]. My father’s career never truly recovered since then. When I moved to New York to study and pursue photography, I definitely felt my class identity change. My family is not as well off as my peers, and so I had to work and study hard during my four years at art school. To this day, I feel like I have to work 20 times harder than my peers because I do not have the privilege of relying on my parents.”

Furthermore, millennials of color are already more often expected to care for their parents rather than the other way around, and with aging parents, the expectation that they care for their parents could only increase.

When asked about her class identity, 24-year-old Agustina, a Hispanic woman living in Boston, paused, perplexed. “I don’t know,” she said. She was not the only one confused about where she stands in the oversimplified hierarchical model of class. She and others I spoke to identified as having some class privilege, often saying they “wanted for nothing,” and yet when they described their actual life circumstances, most did not have a proverbial pot to piss in. Many did not have cars, and none were homeowners. All were deeply in debt. What could this mean besides that we have no idea how to talk about class and millennials’ current situation?

Millennials recognize that growing up middle class comes with privilege, but are often too hesitant to claim their current and future financial precarity as a class issue for fear of not wanting to seem like they are complaining, or drowning out voices of more marginalized working class folks. The ways in which they vocalized their circumstances also reflected the reality of austerity politics — we have become so used to doing with less, we think we are more fortunate than we are.

Millennials have also learned to do with less in the workplace. Under the current iteration of capitalism, the “gig economy” has become more and more popular with both blue-collar and white-collar employers. However, while things like remote freelance work and shared workspaces carry the cache of middle class privilege, gig economy employers rarely offer more than paltry wages, job insecurity, and no benefits. Because it’s not factory work, we’re less likely to associate driving an Uber with being working class, even though few can pay rent on a job like Uber alone.

Meg is a 33-year-old mixed-race Filipina, a PhD candidate, and a harried adjunct professor who grew up working class, and who despite her education, feels no change in her circumstances. She lamented: “I have the education, I have the work experience but there’s nowhere for me to go. Am I any better off with a PhD than my mother who does unskilled labor?” However, cognitive labor work does often require the privilege of education, white-collar job experience, and the cultural capital befitting what is expected of a middle class person.

While things like remote freelance work and shared workspaces carry the cache of middle class privilege, gig economy employers rarely offer more than paltry wages, job insecurity, and no benefits.

As reflected by the statistics, millennials are struggling with a descent into a lower socioeconomic bracket. While these young people certainly did not lose all their previous privileges from middle classness, it would be unfair to call their new class consciousness a false one, regardless of cultural capital. Many millennials’ tastes — such as in organic food or fashion — may reflect the cultural capital of privilege, and a distinction away from mass culture. Some of my interviewees even confessed to occasionally splurging on high-end makeup or skincare, food, and clothing, precisely because they felt saving enough to get ahead was impossible. Those items are no longer the privileges of the middle class, but the “vices” of the lower class.

“My life feels pretty shitty and economically unstable, so sometimes you have to practice self care and that may cost money that isn’t exactly disposable,” Meg elaborated. “But if I waited until I was economically stable to enjoy life, I’m not sure I ever would.”

What, then, does it now mean to have privileged tastes? Just as the idea that poor people owning luxury goods are not “really” poor has been roundly critiqued, so too should the idea that millennials with certain other trappings of middle classness are not also poor. Americans are grappling for a lens through which to view millennial poverty, and ultimately it will have to be a more complex view of class. As of right now, we do not have the syntax, as it were, to describe class in millennials’ terms.

Unless the current situation with flatlined wages and scarce jobs turns around, the nation has to come to grips with what it means for an entire generation saddled with debt, earning less than ever, to have elite tastes, college degrees, or both.

With the disintegration of the middle class, what will it mean to have the façade of a middle class background without the material reality of a middle class life? While cultural capital surrounding class is always influenced by race, gender, and other identity markers, what is happening to millennials requires a more nuanced conversation about class that both acknowledges the privileges many millennials have but also recognizes that possessing cultural capital does not necessarily yield a livable income, and will likely make less of a difference as the middle class continues to erode over time.

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