Wednesday, September 18, 2013

One Lazy, Unhappy, and Apathetic Gen Y-er Responds

I probably shouldn't write this post. It probably touches on the edges (or, with my tone deafness to such things, steps right in the middle) of some professional-political nightmare. I re-read Hunter S. Thompson's cover letter for motivation, though, and I'm going to write it anyway. 

I take shots of Thompson's prose the way he took drugs: for creative inspiration.
I find this second-hand high to be a little easier on the body or, at the very least, more legal.

You see, I spent the day being called lazy, unhappy, and apathetic.

Well, okay, no one said these things to me personally, but on multiple occasions, some more personal than others, there were people looking upon groups that I belong to (be they Gen Y-ers in general or humanities graduate students in particular) and wringing their hands about our collective failures.

This stick-figure illustrated lament about Gen Y's self-imposed unhappiness has been making the internet rounds. The claim is that the Millennial generation (those born roughly from the late 70's through the mid-90's) have inflated expectations for their lives and that the large gap between their expected outcomes and the reality of having to slog through entry-level jobs are making us miserable. The author complains that these Gen Y-ers (who he calls GYPSYs) believe their future success is a guarantee and that now they only have to figure out just how awesome their lives will become:
A second GYPSY delusion comes into play once the GYPSY enters the job market. While Lucy's parents' expectation was that many years of hard work would eventually lead to a great career, Lucy considers a great career an obvious given for someone as exceptional as she, and for her it's just a matter of time and choosing which way to go.
This article goes on to make some interesting claims about using the curated content of social media to judge our success relative to our peers, but for the sake of this discussion, let's just focus on this early premise: Gen Y-ers have been told that we're special and that working hard is a guarantee to success in the wonderful meritocracy that is America and now we are unable to face the realities of the actual workforce without whining.

Adam Weinstein has an interesting response to this claim that focuses on just how hard he works in his chosen field (journalism) and just how difficult those economic realities really are:
Younger journos see me as a success story and ask my advice, and I feel like a fraud, because I’m doing what I love, and it makes me completely miserable and exhausts me. 
Last weekend my baby had a fever, and we contemplated taking him to the ER, and my first thought was - had to be - “Oh God, that could wipe out our bank account! Maybe he can just ride it out?” Our status in this Big Financial Game had sucked my basic humanity towards my child away for a minute. If I wish for something better, is that me simply being entitled and delusional?
Weinstein points to a problem in all of these critiques that I want to echo here: our predecessors are judging our reactions and lives by outdated models. Our times are not their times. Our realities are not their realities.

For me, this has become increasingly clear by watching the graduate school crisis unfold. There seems to be an idyllic image of a graduate student who has no other responsibilities outside of studying, writing, attending a few classes a week, and fulfilling the research or teaching responsibilities that fund these other endeavors. Perhaps this is true for a few people (though, I have to tell you, I know a lot of grad students, and I don't know any that fit that model), and perhaps it used to be true for most people.

Let me be clear: I love my field. I absolutely love reading rhetorical theory, writing about it, talking about it, attending classes on it. I love taking literature classes. I love being part of a community of talented and intelligent students and professors. I love being a graduate student.

But if I had tried to remain a graduate student on that idyllic model, I would have stopped a long time ago--long before I received an M.A., let alone the PhD I am currently pursuing. I didn't have funding, for one thing, so my entire existence was subsidized by loans (gulp), adjunct work, and any other part-time employment I could cobble together.

Let me be clear about something else: I don't half-ass my work. When I was a cashier at Wal-Mart, I was cashier of the district. Seriously. I have a certificate. Was it that I was so moved by cashiering that I felt it deserved all of my energy? No. But I brought my best to it every day. I took it seriously. So when I took part-time work to pay for graduate school, it wasn't just something to pay the bills. If I told you'd I'd tutor your kid in English, then for those two hours, I was hers. If I was a writing center consultant, then for those ten hours, that's where my mind and heart was. I throw myself into what I do. Always.

Cliff Edge
This is not, by the way, always a positive quality. 
All that to say that while my enthusiasm and passion for graduate school is real and I hope evident through the work that I do, it is also finite. I cannot, unfortunately, freeze time. There are only so many hours in the day, and I'm only an English major, so I'm waiting for one of those engineers or physicists who get paid more to figure out how to extend them. 

I feel, though, like some of the people who walked this path before me and my colleagues are looking back through shades tinted by their own experience (or, in some cases, blinders). Sometimes I get the impression that they think we're making a choice between eating Ramen and living in a studio apartment and making more money so that we can drink the good wine and go to fancy concerts or something. The truth is, most of us are working these jobs because we are making decisions between things like having a roof over our head or not, affording medicine or not, having food (Ramen included) or not. We are working these other jobs because the money is necessary for survival, not fun. 

And then, I did something apparently stupid. I got married, had a baby, bought a house, and got a job. Silly me. 

Maybe I could throw myself more passionately into the graduate school atmosphere without these impediments. In fact, surely I could. But what would be the point? I'm going through grad school, after all, so that I can have the stability of a house, family, and career I love. You know, those things I'm doing

So to people who would call me lazy or apathetic, I give a sample of my schedule. 

5:30am- My first alarm goes off. I ignore it and bury my head under the pillow. 
5:45am- My second alarm goes off. I force myself out of the bed and put on gym clothes.
6:00am- I hit the pavement before the sun is up to run two miles. 
6:30am- I shower, get dressed, get my lunch ready for work, say goodbye to my husband and daughter, and leave. 
7:30am- I arrive for my office hours. I meet with students until my classes begin at 9:00 and then I teach nonstop until 1:00pm where I go back to my office and eat lunch between meetings with students for the rest of my office hours until 3:00. 
3:00pm- I either read for my PhD exams, go lift weights, or grade papers for an hour. 
4:00pm- I pick my daughter up from daycare and drive home. 
4:30pm- I put on an episode of Sesame Street, give my daughter a snack, and try to get some grading/reading/writing done. 
5:30pm- I start making dinner. 
6:00pm- My husband comes home, so I talk to him while finishing making my dinner. We eat, then we play with our daughter, straighten up the house, put in laundry, and do the dishes.
8:00pm- I take my daughter to bed and read her 11 million stories and sing her 24,027 songs. 
8:58pm- I go downstairs and get my computer out to lesson plan for the next day. 
9:00pm- I go upstairs and sing 123 more songs. 
9:30pm- I lesson plan. 
10:00pm- I read for my exams for an hour. 
11:00pm- I go to bed.
1:00am- My daughter climbs into bed, jumps on my head, and cries as I make her return to her bed. I sing 218 more songs.
1:30am- I go back to sleep.

That's my day. I'm presenting it here to demonstrate that I do, indeed, work hard at just about everything I do. Here's the thing though, there are two problems with the view I've been getting from those in the earlier generations. 

I am not special! I am not unique!

I do a lot of work. Every day. Some days, I do a lot more than this. Every once in a while, I do a lot less. For the most part, though, every single day is spent doing something productive and necessary a good 90% of the time (unless you see sleep as optional, which I think those biology students should be working on, too). 

But I'm not a special snowflake working so much harder than my peers. I know a lot of graduate students. We're all doing this. Sure, some don't have kids, so that looks a little different, but that usually just means they have more jobs or more reading to do or more papers to write. Virtually everyone I know works hard

And here's the second thing they keep getting wrong:

I'm not unhappy!

Sure, this is a lot of work. Sometimes, it's too much work. Every once in a while, I break down. 

But most of the time? I love it. I love what I do. I love teaching, I love being a mother, and I love my husband. I love reading and writing. I don't particularly love grading, but I love seeing my students get better at writing and so I grin and bear it. 

Here's the big secret:

I love my life

We're not complaining about working hard. We're complaining about doing all of this work in an environment where we'll likely be saddled with crushing student loan debt and no viable career options in our field. 

We're not complaining about not getting a swank apartment on our stipend money. We're complaining about not having health insurance so that something as simple as a slip on the ice and a broken arm can destroy our lives. 

When we don't show up to a campus talk, we're not out shooting the breeze and plugging in our iPods to have raves in our basements; we're working two jobs and grading papers during our lunch breaks. 

When we leave an meeting early, it's not because we think the meeting isn't worth our time; it's because the daycare charges by the minute if we don't pick our kids up on time. 

Earlier today, I was teaching my students about perspective and we read Wallace Stevens' "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Here's my favorite part:

When the blackbird flew out of sight, 
It marked the edge 
Of one of many circles.
Red winged black bird flying

To me, these lines are a reminder that our circles of vision are never complete. When a bird flies out of my line of vision, to me it disappears, but to someone else it suddenly appears. The bird did not vanish. 

When I leave a graduate student meeting, I am not gone. I have entered the circle of motherhood where I suddenly appear to my daughter. When I leave her after she's fallen asleep, I do not vanish. I have entered the circle of teacher where I will grade papers until I enter the circle of human and fall asleep. 

Just because I am not in your circle of sight does not mean that I am not working, and just because I have a lot of circles to inhabit does not mean that I am miserable. 


  1. And at some point in all of that we deserve a circle for our own sanity to breathe and remember, "I am awesome!" Thank you beyond words for putting this declaration out there!

  2. I really liked this. I read that article about the "GYPSYs", and I read a lot of responses to it that I could appreciate. I'm not a grad student, or all that well informed, but I have been thinking about the generalizations that have been flung at my generation, and I am a little baffled. To make some really broad sweeping generalizations take a look back on the last 2 groups. When I look at Boomers, I see a selfish, bloated, self-centered group who have made economic upward mobility nearly impossible for the Gen Y. I look at Gen X, and while they were supposed to be some massive movement for innovation and art, all I see is more materialism, apathy, entitlement, and frankly total disappointment. Was it Gen Yers that caused the economic collapse of the nation? Did a 30 something walk away with a golden parachute? hmmmm.
    So, there are terrible things to be said about us all if we want to just lump entire generations together.
    I really like your applying the circle metaphor. I live in a nearly invisible circle being a SAHM who homeschools. There is no GNP measurement for all the work I do everyday. *shrug* And I am HAPPY! I just don't have a platform to make that incredibly public. Besides human interest stories like that only come on the tail end of the hour and get 10 sec. of air. LOL

  3. I have so many FEELINGS about that article, including WHYYYYY did you have to force an awkward acronym that is ALSO the name of a marginalized ethnic group? Did you really think it THAT IMPORTANT to be able to talk about "delusional GYPSYs"?

    But the crux of the "argument" is that:
    1) we were told we were special, and we are stupid to believe something our parents and teachers told us
    2) we expect hard work to lead to financial and other success, and we are stupid to believe that.

    Young people! So stupid! So stupid for believing what they were explicitly taught! So stupid for following the life plans they were told would pay out! So stupid for believing that hard work would be rewarded!

    Obviously this is all the fault of YOUNG PEOPLE (so stupid!) and not the fault of preceding generations who fucked shit up and then presented it to us on a platter while insulting us.

  4. That's an excellent point! Even the author of that snarky article admits that we were taught to see the world in this exact way (which I think is a gross oversimplification). If that's the case, then shouldn't the blame for all of our "failures" rest on our educators'/parents' generation (or, to put it more bluntly, the generation of all the people writing these articles)?

  5. Yes. The sanity circle is a small and distant one, but I fly into it now and then.

  6. I was told that I had to go to college. That's what one does. It's part of adulthood. My parents couldn't afford to support me, so I cobbled together work study and part time work (often working 3-4 part time jobs... between work and school my feet hit the floor at 5am and I punched out of my last job at midnight or later) and every year I saw tuition and fees go up and state and federal aid go down. So on the one hand, a huge chorus of adults were telling me/my peers that we HAD to attend college and on the other hand the ability to do so was being stripped from me.

    My parents were both able to attend a state university and pay for tuition, fees, housing, groceries, etc on state/federal assistance and part time work with money left over to party and take road trips and not have student loans when they graduated. I attended state university and left because i couldn't afford to keep going despite my hard work, and will be paying off loans (but mostly interest) for my entire life. OH I AM SO SPECIAL AND SHELTERED.