Dear people my age,
I was born in 1986. The Soviet Union still existed, but the Berlin Wall came down when I was three and I was none the wiser. My third grade teacher at one point tried to explain why the U.S.S.R. as depicted on our classroom world map wasn’t relevant anymore. I didn’t get it. When I was 14, George Bush beat out Al Gore in the race for the presidency, despite losing the popular vote and despite the fact that Al Gore kept talking to my parents about saving the planet on behalf of my friends and me. That year I learned that you can win, and still lose.
All through grade school, middle school, high school, and college, my parents assured me that if I worked hard and pursued my passions and tried to help other people, I could be whatever I wanted to be. I studied history, and architecture, and political science, and French. I studied abroad in Paris during the second Bush term, and watched as my French host mother mocked the Muslim prayers happening inside the train station on the north side of the city. I will say that as in third grade, I still didn’t really get it.
In 2008 I graduated with a Bachelor’s in History. A college degree, I had been assured, was the ticket I needed to a job that would land me safely in the career of my choosing. As nearly all parents do, my parents hoped that their children would be better off than they were. My parents, who are the most intelligent and persevering people I have ever met, did not have college degrees (though my mother has since earned one and my father’s is in process—go mom and dad!), and had faith, as I did and do, in higher education. So I got a scholarship and I also took out some loans and my family made it work.
Of course, it was 2008. So like clockwork, and pretty much as soon as I tossed that weird hat up in the air, the market crashed, and all the jobs were gone, and it turned out that following your passion got you a degree in history or architecture or French or political science, and not much in the way of marketable skills. So I, like my friends, went back to grad school, or struggled for a long time, or went into debt, or just tried to figure it out. A lot of my friends have finally gotten on their feet, but many have not, and some are teetering on their tiptoes hoping they don’t fall over. Many of us are struggling with crippling debt loads, living with our parents, putting off marriage and children, and all the while being told that we are lazy and entitled diletantes. Well, we are not. We were idealists who have watched politicians make decisions that didn’t pan out for us; we have been unemployed for a long time; we have been indebted for college degrees that haven’t paid economic dividends; and we have been told since we were 14 that you could win, and still lose.
So, I don’t blame you, fellow millenials, for not voting. (Well, I do, actually, but I also, sadly, get it.) We have been in an extended period of adolescence. We have read a bunch of books but we can’t get mortgages, and our futures are looking bleaker right now than they were two weeks ago.
But the historian in me realized something this past week. I am thirty. Thirty is an age that my fourteen-year-old self literally could not even imagine being, and it is certainly what I would consider the threshold for adulthood. Our parents, by the time they were thirty, had not only had kids and bought houses, they had also dodged drafts or they hadn’t, and they had fought in foreign wars; they had protested legal segregation; they had marched for equal pay and demonstrated in the streets. They were hippies at Woodstock and they were the kids getting shot at Kent State. And they were also just normal kids who grew up to be lawyers and doctors and politicians and plumbers and contractors and teachers. (I’d also note that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at the ripe old age of 33.)
We are grownups now. And we outnumber our parents. And we are watching as people of our parents’ generation talk about dismantling the architecture of American democracy. They limit access of the press to our government; they talk about banning religions and ethnicities from our soil; they talk about grabbing us forcibly and against our will; they talk about how the climate change that we know to be real and that will surely affect us more than them is a hoax. We, millenials, didn’t ask for that. It has happened because we have been asleep at the wheel, or because we never even got in the drivers’ seat.
So when you are finished protesting, will you please put on your big kid pants and for the love of all that is good, step up to the plate? Will you engage in civic life? Will you do more than buying a Bernie Sanders button? Will you campaign and canvas and run for office? We outnumber our parents, and this is our American republic, for good and bad, better and worse. (You can try to move to Australia or Italy but based on my experience in Paris ca. 2006, they’ll have a few choice words for you once you get there.) We are grownups now, and we need to start acting like it.
I am, ever faithfully, yours, &c.,