Today, for the second time this week, my wife and I vacuumed the walls of our bedroom. What else is there to do? Since the lockdown started, we’ve power-washed and stained our deck. We rearranged the salad dressing shelf of our refrigerator. We’ve watched Netflix — all of Netflix. She’s finished 11 puzzles, and counting. My most exciting update these days is monitoring how fast the compost pits in our garden digest our vegetable scraps.
We’re so ahead at work that we ask for more work. We don’t really “hang out” anymore. We’ve reached the point where we just sit in silence, lately while listening to podcasts that report how the US is writhing through rates of new coronavirus cases at a clip of (oh, give or take) 50,000 a day. The bodies of US Americans who have died from COVID-19 have reached 155,000. Yet young US Americans are flocking outside to bars or barbecues, to water-tube on lazy rivers, to enjoy their summer at the expense of everyone else’s health. Which is one more reason that no one likes millennials.
I get it. I’m a millennial, part of a cohort of 72 million aged 23–38 (as of 2019), and I’ve been hearing those tut-tutting comments about my age group for what feels like the better part of a decade, the summation of which may have been a 2013 cover story for Time titled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.” If baby boomers were the “Me” generation, then millennials, the children of boomers, are somehow even more self-centered. (Or as the subtitle puts it: “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”) At work, you’re likely to hear much the same: Millennials want the rewards that come with taking risks, but they’re too timid to take any risks. They’re spoiled and irresponsible and way too sensitive. Some of those points have merit. Plenty of millennials are spoiled and irresponsible and way too sensitive. I know a lot of them. I can be one of them.
From another vantage, though, the Time article feels crass (“poor millennials have even higher rates of narcissism, materialism and technology addiction in their ghetto-fabulous lives”), and the writer’s characterizations of millennials are so broad that they could describe nearly anyone. So who is this generation? Seven years after that article came out, the answer seems to be that this generation is broke. True, millennials enjoy roughly the same household income as their parents and grandparents did when they were 18–33. But millennials are so crushed under student debt that they have not been able to save. As a result, the average net worth of millennials is $8,000, a sum so paltry that they’ve been termed the “poorest generation since World War II.” And those stats came out before the coronavirus, which has been unforgiving to young workers. All told, 7.7 million US workers under 30 were unemployed this spring. Zoomers, AKA Gen Z (born after 1996), were hit even harder than millennials. A third of their jobs vanished in two months.
Friction has always sizzled between generations, but the particular frustration lurking behind the distrust of millennials seems to be that they’re unsuccessful. Yet rather than point to macro-trends like rising inflation or dwindling social mobility or nondischargeable debt as causes of their meager savings, people tend to transmute the blame into jeremiads about millennials being lazy. And the causes of those macro-trends go even deeper: Our national fiscal policy is friendlier to corporations than it is to citizens, so it suctions money up to the ultra-wealthy, leaving less for most young people (or most anyone else) to start out with. Calling the same generation the “Me Me Me Generation” and the “poorest generation since World War II” is not exactly contradictory. Anyone can be snobbish and penniless. But the discrepancy between those generational labels indicates a tactic of shifting responsibility for a battered safety net back onto one of the demographics now in freefall.
“Four walls can choke you to death sometimes,” she used to tell me.
Millennials may attract undue scrutiny because of how our culture romanticizes youth, but in a certain sense, we are all millennials. US Americans of all ages are being saddled with student debt and watching their earnings plateau. We are becoming a nation of renters and adjuncts, people with unprotected day-jobs thrashing about in the gig economy. Every day, the coronavirus reveals how little the US invests in its own citizens. Waves of evictions are coming. Young people may be flocking out to bars and barbecues, but people of all ages are flocking to churches and restaurants and political rallies. And while the median age of new coronavirus cases has dropped, it’s debatable whether only young people are anti-masking or disregarding orders to quarantine. Reports are emerging that the young are getting sick because they’re going back to work, and that the data’s changed because of who’s now getting tested — or even how we define “young people.” (Arizona has tracked a sizable outbreak in 20–44-year-olds, but that age range is far broader than the next category up, 55–64-year olds.)
The most at-risk group, however, may be the elderly. According to some data, almost half of all coronavirus fatalities are linked to nursing homes. The disease is often lethal for older adults, who already may be in poor health or who are effectively bound inside their homes. My own grandmother died this summer (although not from COVID-19). She was 92. Her name was Pauline Walters. We called her Paw-Paw, and for sixty years she lived in Shelbyville, Kentucky, a town thirty miles east of Louisville. Her apartment was in one of those old country houses with fireplaces and tall ceilings and planked floors that had been parceled up and let out. Over the last two years Paw-Paw’s health declined. She quit going to church. She spent her last winter indoors. Then she stopped going outside altogether.
Now that she’s gone, I wonder if the five rooms where she had lived alone for thirty years, which for me had been a place of warmth and breakfast sizzling and the screen door banging open and closed as my family came in and out — I wonder if it had felt to her, once she couldn’t leave it, like a perpetual stay-at-home order. “Four walls can choke you to death sometimes,” she used to tell me.
These days we can all internalize the pain of shut-ins, so much so that some people are risking their health, and the health of others, just to feel once again that the living ought to be easier. So even as I vacuum the walls of our bedroom, I remind myself that boredom is privilege, but isolation kills. At least 33 countries have now barred entry to US travelers, likely because we’re currently the world “leader” in coronavirus cases. One might attribute that dubious accolade to our national overemphasis on individualism, or to the lack of a coordinated federal response. Yet the open-air confinement suffocating us this summer feels rooted in a coldness much deeper than just disorganization.
“We built an economy with no shock absorbers,” Joseph Stiglitz, the author of a study of wealth disparities in the US, The Price of Inequality, said recently. Millennials really aren’t so bad. We’re one of the groups out there that are just trying to make it. The “question” about why we’re so lazy and entitled is itself an age-old fallback on a lazy, entitled daydream that everyone will always be better off tomorrow. As the pandemic runs its course, it will lay bare how the US only values people who can afford to ignore any type of disaster.
For everyone else, young and old alike? You’re on your own.