We Need To Stop Playing Down The Impact The Financial Crisis Has Had On Millennial Lives

'How do grown-ups not understand the profound effect this event had on us? How do they not remember the nausea of watching massive companies vanish overnight; the desperation of searching for a job, any job; the overwhelming fear that it might be like this forever?'

We Need To Stop Playing Down The Impact The Financial Crisis Has Had On Millennial Lives

by Anna Pitoniak |
Published on

It was the summer of 2009, and I had just finished my third year of college. I was interning for a publishing house in New York City, but the internship was part-time and didn’t pay much, so I needed another job, and fast. Stack of resumes in hand, I ran around the city applying for any and every job I could. From coffee shops to Club Monaco, fast food chains to cheesemongers, no stone was left unturned. I was capable, I figured, and I had experience in customer service. Surely I was qualified for one of these jobs. Right? Right?

Did I mention it was the summer of 2009? That was about eight or nine months after the financial crisis hit, months when the world was awash in failed banks and skyrocketing unemployment, and slightly desperate people like me, searching for work.

The low point came one day when I walked into a Pita Pit in Midtown with a 'help wanted' sign in the window. The aproned, hair-netted man behind the counter explained that the position was now filled, but their location downtown was hiring, as long as I got there before 5 p.m., which was in less than an hour. I raced downtown, and got to the other Pita Pit just before the deadline. I felt triumphant and hopeful—here it was! My job, at last! A paycheck, and a way to fill the hours!— but then the woman at this location shook her head. No, they weren’t hiring. There were no jobs here. I had been misinformed.

I remember walking home that night, thinking: this is really sad, Anna. You can’t even get hired by the Pita Pit. Here I was, 21 years old, full of energy, willing to do absolutely any menial task, and still no one would have me? I was sure this spelled permanent doom.

A few nights after that, my boyfriend and I had dinner with a friend from college. He was a few years older than us, and after graduation in 2007, he had gone to work in consulting. It was a plum job, and perfect for him: he was smart, analytical, an excellent writer. Then the market crashed, and he got laid off. Now, two years after graduating, he had an internship at a magazine. But it was temporary, and soon it would be coming to an end, too. I remember the way he swigged his beer, shrugged in resignation. It didn’t matter how good he’d been. There were forces out of his—out of everyone’s—control.

After a few years later, the market had stabilized, and so had my career, but there remained a gloomy pall over the economy. Around this time, a frustrating journalistic trend began. Every day, it felt like, there was a new article or essay about the regressive helplessness of millennials. These kids in their early twenties, they can’t hold a job! They live with their parents! They wear sweatpants and play videogames all day! They’re slackers who don’t know the meaning of hard work! These articles were all written by those a generation or two older than us.

This left me scratching my head. It made me think: how do the grown-ups not see it? How do they not understand the profound effect this event had on us? How do they not remember the nausea of watching massive companies vanish overnight; the desperation of searching for a job, any job; the overwhelming fear that it might be like this forever? If they remembered this, if they knew it viscerally, there was no way they’d take such a dismissive tone towards a generation burdened with student loans; a generation unprotected by unions; a generation struggling to pay rent, and by the way, the rent was kept artificially high thanks to mortgage-interest tax deductions that tended to benefit older and wealthier people, the very people who were mocking the living-with-their-parents millennials.

But here’s the thing: perhaps they didn’t remember it, not in the visceral way that we did. Perhaps they didn’t internalise the fear and uncertainty. And why should they have? Sometimes, to grasp the true meaning of a historical moment, you have to be just the right age at that moment. You can be too young. During the Sept. 11 attacks, I was scared witless, but did I really get what was going on? No, because I was just a kid. Or you can be too old. Your life has been long, and you’ve witnessed the cyclical nature of things. You endure a recession with confidence, knowing that things will rebound afterwards, because you’ve seen it before.

And then there are moments when the timing is just right. I think of those who came of age in the 1960s, during Vietnam and Woodstock. I think of American teenagers today, galvanized and organized (in a way I never was at 17) by a terrifying political situation. And I think of the cohort of millennials my age, who in 2008 and 2009 witnessed first-hand the unmasking of certain realities. We were at just the right age to realize that the big, stable systems we take for granted are in fact prone to upheaval. To realize that the grown-ups don’t always know best, and that sometimes things do end in disaster.

But time has gone by. The world had re-adjusted. It went back to the way it was, mostly, with certain exceptions. Nine years later, does the recession really still matter? Nine years later, where does it leave this generation?

I believe it leaves us with a built-in scepticism. With an awareness that systems are imperfect, and not to be trusted; with the expectation that, even if you do everything right, even if you work hard and play fair, you sometimes get screwed over. Because it doesn’t matter that you followed the rules. Because things that are much larger than you—companies, governments, economies—are often indifferent to your needs.

But when a system is shown to be imperfect, it opens the door to other possibilities. Better possibilities, maybe. The building blocks of a happy life used to be owning a house, owning a car, having 2.4 children. But the old cultural norms don’t necessarily have to apply. About this, I understand the griping of the older generations, I do. Change is hard! It’s upsetting to watch a way of life—your way of life—disappearing. Owners become renters. Phone calls become text messages. If a concept as fundamental as ownership (see: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb) is allowed to drift away, like a twig dropped into a river, who knows what else might go?

Is that scary? Well, yeah, sure. But a lot of things are scary, including ten percent unemployment, which we’ve been through once before. And besides: when things break, you get the chance to put them back together.

**Liked this? You might also be interested in: **

Are Millennials Running Harder And Faster From Death Than Any Other Generation?

Why Are Millennials The Most Nostalgic Generation Ever?

Why Can't Millennials Make Any Damn Decisions?

**Anna's novel The Futures is out now, £12.99, **Follow Anna on Twitter @annapitoniak

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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