Millennial Nomads: Did We Peak in College?

Since the days of Beanie Babies, most millennials have gotten everything we’ve wanted. As the upper-middle class East Coast academic liberal elite, many of us were the kids who decided we were going to Harvard or Dartmouth when we were in 3rd grade, and because we didn’t know any differently, assumed we would graduate from our Ivy League schools with job offers coming out the wazoo, starting salaries encroaching on $100,000, and a doorman building in Manhattan. This is what we were taught to expect, and the big kids we saw processing into “real life” before us reinforced this expectation.

This came true for some, but mostly, the graduating class of 2009 (the economy having tanked in the fall of 2008) found ourselves floundering. Those job offers turned into revocations or simply didn’t exist. I have been, I believe, particularly unlucky, or at least particularly susceptible to self-pity.

My mother, who finds my failure in the job market particularly intriguing and constantly uses it as an excuse to “help,” asked me an interesting question: For how many jobs had I applied, interviewed, and been offered in the almost three years since graduating?

I have applied to about fifty “real” jobs, interviewed for ten or fifteen, and gotten two, both internships. I’m batting .04 for real life success; so much for that Ivy League degree. It’s a rate so low I don’t even notice rejection anymore. Desperate for other options and doing what's "done" when you're a lost lamb in your twenties, I noncommittally applied to law school. So desensitized by failure, when I received an email from one of my prospective schools kindly informing me they would be unable to offer me admission, I hardly noticed. No pang of sadness or regret, no “aw shucks” moment. I thought nothing about it and deleted the email.

Even though I ooze resilience, when I dwell on the sum total of my post-college failures, I have to convince myself I don’t want or need a "real" job. Did I really peak at 18? Much to the shock and chagrin of our parents’ generation, rather than building an investment portfolio or 401k while sitting behind a desk for 40 or more hours a week, we are working in bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants until the rest of our lives fall into place, convinced they never will. I’m not complaining, it was choice as much as necessity to veer from the “path” when my initial forays didn’t work out. The problem is long-term sustainability: At 24 with no debt, loans, or credit cards, I manage fairly comfortably on $9/hour, but someday I’ll need more. The poverty line is decidedly not the new nouveau riche.

Amassed rejections and acute self-awareness engender immense self-doubt. Am I actually worse at life than my peers who work for Lazard, Bear Stearns, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Wall Street Journal, BCG, Monitor, and Microsoft? Or, my friends in medical school, law school, or Ph.D programs? They say they're jealous of me, and in the eyes of the responsibility-laden, my life is enviable. Considering the alternative of hundred-hour thankless weeks, I’m almost convinced I want to spend the rest of my life ski-bumming with the Spicolis of the 2010s. But it’s decidedly not forever, and I keep my eyes peeled for other options. Heck, I’d take $10/hour any day of the week, but I won’t hold my breath.

This resignation to a life of failure according to the terms of the generations before us is necessary self-protection. If I let myself be heartbroken after each rejection or took my tax bracket personally, I would have lost my marbles a long time ago. If we refuse to adapt, we collapse. The “everybody’s a winner” 90s didn't prepare us for this, so we’ll have to hack it ourselves. Though it is nerve-wracking to know our institutional options are not what they once were, our constant failures and unconventional endeavors will teach us to be more flexible and creative — thinking outside the box, coloring outside the lines, being generally disruptive — than those before us. Our road to eventual success will be longer and rougher, but someday we’ll probably be okay. Fingers crossed, future TBD.

Photo CreditAudrey Ruth