The other day I argued with a friend over who had it worse. She graduated college in 2008. “2008 was the year,” she said. I retorted that she’d been able to get a full-time job that halcyon spring of 2008, before the world cracked apart. As an ’09 grad, I’d truly suffered because at the precise moment I entered the workforce, every company I applied to alerted me that hiring was frozen.
Of course, the answer is the 40-somethings had it worse, because they had children to care for. Or the 60-somethings had it worse, because their retirement funds dissolved. Or maybe it was Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust and won a Nobel Peace Prize only to have his life savings and the millions held by his charity wiped out by Bernie Madoff’s fraud.
I’m no unluckier than anyone else. In fact, I’ve checked every box as a millennial in the midst of the financial crisis. I couldn’t get a job after graduating in 2009, so I lived at home for a few extra years. My first job was full-time freelance — 60 hours a week in an office, no benefits — and by the time I was a regular employee, I defaulted on my student loans and had my wages garnished, which meant my employer withheld part of my paycheck. I was laid off in September 2014, got a new job and was laid off again in May 2015. A full-time job has become aspirational to me.
Through all this, I stockpiled my tiny wads of cash until they became bigger wads. I kept it all in the Wachovia savings account I opened at age 13 for my babysitting money. During the crisis, Wachovia was purchased by Wells Fargo, and my one and only bank account became one of millions subjected to Wells Fargo’s scam to up its sales numbers. The company deducted thousands of dollars without my permission and placed them in a money-market fund. I had multiple meetings with Wells Fargo and placed several calls to corporate, but it took until 2018 to get an apology. “We’re recommitting to you” is the message that lights up against a sunrise scene when I go to their ATMs.
When it comes to my relationship with banks, the language of a broken marriage is an appropriate one. Did I ever trust financial firms? I don’t know. I was a teenager. You put money in and you expect to get it back. But the financial crisis taught me a lesson my generation can’t unlearn: The banks are lying to you. They’re manipulating you. They profit off your bad decisions, your ignorance. The processes are called “predatory” for a reason.
The financial crisis taught me a lesson my generation can’t unlearn: The banks are lying to you.
Of course, I’m not the only millennial who stockpiles their cash, who feels secure only when they can access it at any moment. Just one in three millennials invest in the stock market, a Bankrate.com survey found in 2017. Even wealthy millennials prefer to keep cash on hand. A Merrill Edge report found that two-thirds of affluent millennials (one criteria is having at least $20,000 in savings and an income of at least $50,000) plan to keep their money in savings accounts rather than invest it. It’s like my grandfather who grew up during the Great Depression and kept boxes of buttons in his basement: We hoard because it reassures us. We trust no one but ourselves.
And we certainly don’t trust the banks and financial firms. A Harvard study found only 14% of millennials trust Wall Street to do the right thing “all or most of the time.” Meanwhile, 83% of all Americans believe Wall Street is no more ethical today than it was in 2008, with 22% saying they think the big banks have actually become less ethical since the crash.
The hoarding may sound paranoid to baby boomers, but I envy their faith — even if it was rewarded by bankers lighting cigars off the flames of their pension funds. The financial industry survives off customers who don’t look too closely at the sausage factory, who assume there must be regulations in place, who assume someone else knows more about the system and will take care of them. They will not.
It’s like my grandfather who grew up during the Great Depression and kept boxes of buttons in his basement: We hoard because it reassures us.
I think often of a funny Broad City scene in which Ilana is arguing with her boss and says, “You white dudes are figuring out the jig is fucking up!” We — the consumers, the customers, the millennials and those older and younger — have figured it out. We can’t go back. And I don’t find any poignancy in it. I’m not grateful for my bootstrapping background and I feel no nostalgia over this terrible anniversary. I’m still so angry that people were forced out of their homes to enrich the already rich. But I’m glad I know. The jig is up.