A couple of weeks ago, I was attending one of the several graduation dinners put on for the seniors at my alma mater, since my fiancé was getting ready to graduate. For their keynote speaker, the university selected a 2002 alumna to feed the senior class some encouraging words before they flung themselves off into the unknown, a.k.a. the working world or graduate school. I’d been listening to her speech, half hungry, half bored, when she said the word “millennials.” My ears perked up.
“The other day, I was reading a New York Times article about how cereal isn’t so popular with millennials,” she said. “Guess why? It requires cleaning both a spoon and a bowl. C’mon, guys! We need to work harder than this.”
The audience, which was mostly made up of university patrons, faculty, and parents over 40, laughed, and some applauded. A portion of the rest of her speech was dedicated to chastising millennials for their poor work ethic and encouraging us to do better. She also spoke about how hard she worked during her undergraduate career, including how she spent the beginning of each semester begging the registrar to overload on credits because there were just so many great classes.
I was shocked. Because of this woman’s age, which groups her among millennials, I thought she’d take a different approach. I thought maybe she’d see things from our perspective, acknowledge what we’re up against, refuse to apply a stereotype to however many billion of us there are. Instead, she fell in line with the type of people who feel the need to “apologize” for their generation. She threw us under the bus. It didn’t help that she’d framed herself as an incredibly hard worker. She might as well have been wearing a sign that said “Look at me, the special exception.”
Never mind that she chose to interpret not wanting to wash a bowl and spoon as lazy rather than efficient. Never mind that there are far more nutritional breakfasts out there, so I don’t blame most of my fellow millennials for choosing an alternative. Never mind that eating something that doesn’t require a dish saves water, which is crucial right now, especially if you live in California (where I live, at least for now).
If you’ve been on the Internet at all recently, you know how many articles exist purely, or partially, to expose millennials as shitstains who’ve come to blight the Earth. If you just Google “millennials,” two of these articles crop up right on the front page, including TIME’S article calling millennials the “me me me” generation, and an article by The Atlantic about how millennials’ political views don’t make any sense. They use language like “stunted growth” to describe how so many of us live with our parents through our 20s instead of with a spouse. This conveniently forgets that the majority of millennials have to spend years paying off tens of thousands of dollars of debt for a degree most of the work force demands we have, and implies that deciding not to marry is a sign of underdevelopment. They call us “lazy” because 40% of us under 23 don’t want jobs with more responsibility, without taking unpaid labor into account (housekeeping, raising children, etc.). Any chance that these 40% could’ve been single parents, or struggling artists who don’t want their day job taking away from honing their craft? Or that they’re full-time students, as a large population of Americans between the ages of 18-22 are?
But I’m not here to dismantle every single anti-millennial argument on the Internet. I want this blog post to focus more on my own anecdotes.
I’m 23. I work two part-time jobs, despite the fact that, if I wasn’t fiscally responsible, I could live off my savings account from my acting career for a while (until it quickly dwindled to nothing). I’m privileged not to have any loans to pay off from college, thanks again to those acting years. When I’m not at work, I’m keeping up with publishing and book communities, or working on this blog, or writing a novel, or researching literary agents to query a different novel. The people in my life regularly tell me to give myself a break, slow down, lower my expectations for myself.
And that is really, really hard to do when the world is constantly telling me I’m lazy.
Throughout my working years, I’ve pushed myself too hard. During production of The Pacifier, which was filmed in Canada, my mom was only able to visit from home for about a week. She said goodbye and left for the airport right before I was supposed to film a scene. I probably could have requested ten minutes to myself or whatever before I did anything on camera, but instead, I wiped away my tears and stubbornly went through with the scene. During Cheaper by the Dozen 2, I almost collapsed from heat stroke, even though I kept insisting I was fine (thanks again to Bonnie Hunt for pulling me over to the medics despite my protests). During Hannah Montana, while filming a fainting scene, I told them I could do the stunt without a mat to fall on, and ended up pulling a muscle in my neck.
I didn’t learn from this as I grew older. During college, I took on more and more every year. By the time I was a senior, I was working two jobs (one of which was co-running a newspaper), tackling two senior projects (one of which was teaching a class), and, of course, attending classes. I crashed and burned so hard that year I practically never left my room. Once, a friend of mine walked in and found me sprawled on the bed, fighting an oncoming fever, reaching weakly for the reading we’d be discussing in class tomorrow. “I can’t…not finish…the reading,” I told them, panicked. They stared at me and said, “Morgan, you’re not very good at taking care of yourself.”
Am I saying that idiots writing articles about lazy millennials are entirely to blame for my over-the-top work ethic? Of course not. It’s mostly my problem. I have a lot of anxiety issues and struggle with accepting anything less than perfection from myself. American society also encourages this kind of work ethic–if you put your work before yourself, then you’re a “good” worker, even if (especially if) you suffer for it (see: most Americans only get two weeks paid vacation time, if they even get paid vacation time).
But do you know who reads these articles? Shares them? Believes them? Countless older employers around the world. Whether they know it or not, they’re subscribing to a set of beliefs about millennials that can (and do) wind up hurting said millennials. And that’s terrifying.
My bosses know little to nothing about how hard I’ve worked throughout my life. When they look at me, they don’t see me almost fainting from heat stroke when I was 12, or me working myself to the bone during my final year of college. They see a young person. My bosses happen to be kind, understanding people, but I couldn’t be sure of this when I first started working for them. I thought, what if they just see me as a millennial? What if the cards are automatically stacked against me because I’m 23?
So I felt like I couldn’t screw up, ever. For someone with my track record, that is a dangerous way to think. And it’s been hurting me.
I’ve had meltdowns over being late to work out of fear that my bosses would think I was a “lazy millennial” and fire me. Ask my fiancé: getting me to take a sick day is like trying to convince a dog to run to the bathroom every time it farts. Once, I went to work sniffling so badly I could barely contain the snot. After two hours of suffering, my supervisor told me to take the rest of the day off. A couple of days later, I returned to work, even though I was still sick. I didn’t want them to think I was taking advantage. I didn’t want them to think I was entitled, or not used to working hard, or that I didn’t care about my co-workers having to pick up the slack while I was gone.
The worst example of this, though, was last week. I suffer from migraines, but until last week, I’d never had one that lasted for longer than a day. Usually I took my medication, went to sleep, and woke up with it gone. So when I woke up with a migraine last Tuesday, I e-mailed my boss and told her I would be coming in late. I took my meds, went to sleep. I woke up and the migraine was still there. I still went to work. And later that day, I went to my evening job.
The migraine ended up lasting four days. When I came to my evening job the second day (my other job was off that day), I was there for ten minutes before my supervisor told me to go home and care for myself. One of my most prominent anxieties during that migraine episode, besides the fear that the migraine would last into my fiancé’s graduation, was all the work I was missing. Not because I absolutely needed the money from those missed hours, but because of the fear that people would perceive me as lazy. I couldn’t handle it. It probably made my migraine worse.
This is happening in workplaces with bosses who I’ve already established are kind and understanding. The amount of anxiety I feel surrounding this phenomenon is bad enough, but what if I was actually dealing with a boss who felt this way about millennials? Plenty of them do. I’m sure lots of people in power enjoying anti-millennial articles apply this to their daily lives and attribute their young workers’ poor performance as tied to their age. If this attitude persists and spreads widely enough, it’ll become even harder for us to get jobs. Our unemployment rate is already at 8.4%, the highest unemployment rate for people of an age where they’re expected to fend for themselves. To compare, the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. is 5%.
I don’t think like the keynote speaker mentioned earlier. I don’t consider myself a “special exception” in my generation because I work myself to death. Hardworking millennials are everywhere. I know so many of them. If you’re an employer and you feel the impulse to write off a young worker who isn’t meeting your standards purely because they’re a millennial, reconsider. There could be a thousand other reasons. Maybe they’re having an off day, as everyone does. If this person is a frequent offender, maybe they’re suffering from mental health issues you don’t know about, or struggling with some other life event. Maybe they really are lazy or taking advantage, and if that’s the case, pursue the problem as you would with any other employee. But it’s not because they’re a millennial. It’s because they, as an individual, hold those traits. They don’t represent their entire generation.
This backwards, consistently-work-till-I-feel-like-I’m-dying mindset isn’t fixed easily, on an individual level or a national one. It’s embedded into our American ideology. At the very least, though, we could give millennials a break. So many of us are working our asses off. I promise we exist. And for those of us who aren’t, do you really need to measure everyone’s worth by how hard they work? Do people not have other valuable traits we can focus on?
Fellow millennials, feel free to share your experiences with this in the comments.
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