the new america

“This is what the smartest people I know are doing,” Kate told me. We were sitting at her kitchen table in Bellevue, scratching Utah’s ears. (Utah is a dog.) She was talking about one of her friends in the Peace Corps–she writes this fantastic blog about eating weird foods and culture clashes and cows invading personal space (something I can relate to.) “The smartest people I know are traveling across the world and writing brilliant things about working in schools or on farms.” We were also talking about me maybe moving across the universe again to teach children in some country or another how to use this language I speak.

PAUSE! pop quiz.

1) Where is Paraguay?

2) Why is Utah just the best?

3) Why am I sitting at Kate’s kitchen table in Bellevue?

The answers (no peeking!)

1) South america.

2) Ineffable OR n/a

3) because I lived there for two months. Kate and Bruce, my friend Heather’s parents, were kind enough to take me in while I set myself up in Seattle. It took me about two months to find an apartment, find a job that would pay for rent, etc. Even now that the initial search is over, it remains a grind to get by. Hence the discussion of me moving across the world–it’s one of the few jobs I could get which would be a) interesting, b) valuable, and c) pay my student loans.

I am $38,895.34 in debt. This is an ENORMOUS number. THINK ABOUT HOW MANY DOLLARS THAT IS.


It’s so hard to be optimistic about the future when everyone I know, the best people I know, are all flailing like I am. I just listened to one of my best friends cry to me for half an hour because her mom doesn’t support her plan of traveling abroad. What was the fight about? Money. Debt. She felt guilty that she could do nothing to get her mom’s blessing, find a way to start paying back her loans, and still live a life that meant something to her. Heather also visited recently, and she said she was unsettled by how three of her friends were all strung out, all emotionally warped by money issues. (Me included.)

And every day, every every day, I read another article on us millennials getting shafted.

From the NYT:

“It is a new thing, a big social experiment that we’ve accidentally decided to engage in,” said Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a research group based in Washington. “Let’s send a whole class of people out into their professional lives with a negative net worth. Not starting at zero, but starting at a minus that is often measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. Those minus signs have psychological impact, I suspect. They might have a dollars-and-cents impact in what you can afford, too.”

Psychological impact, huh? What might that be?

The places where Americans of the last few generations built their stability–in steady careers, in nuclear families, in churches, in suburbs–all those have been eroded by unprecedented economic uncertainty. This is the universe I live in, and it’s where the rest of us millennials live, too. Those of us lucky enough to have degrees all have AN ENORMOUS amount of debt, and all the traditional things that are supposed to happen, like HAVING A CAREER or STARTING A FAMILY or PLAYING GOLF WITH RICH BOSSES are, well, not really happening. Debt opened beneath our lives like sinkholes, and makes all escape routes look equally far away.

This is wrong and stupid and I hate it. I hate that the people who surround me, people whom I love and support, have to fight so fucking hard to get by. I feel crushed by my debt. Absolutely crushed. We have to work at restaurants or for the internet (doing bizarre work that I do not understand) or as receptionists or go to grad school and acquire MORE debt, and nothing at all guarantees anything. (again, the sinkhole effect.) Lots of my friends live with their parents, or out in distant subdivisions, or scrounge around in these awful degrading jobs which leave them feeling disconnected and poor. The average rent for a studio apartment in Seattle proper right now is $921/month. When you’re working with minimum wage + tips, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for upward mobility. Or for the belief that you might go to grad school someday. Or starting a business. Or for poppin’ out a few babies and being able to take care of them. Or for travel. Or for golf clubs.

My generation refers to jobs with salaries, benefits, and two-weeks-vacation-per-year “getting a real-person job.” Doing taxes? Getting married? Having babies? “doing real-life things.” These sorts of institutions, these artifacts, symbolize what we thought adulthood would be like growing up.

The truth is, though: the weird unstable conditions of our lives are the new “real life” things. All the traditional hallmarks of “growing up” have been supplanted by economic and social weirdness. Upward mobility kind of sounds like a myth.

But, so what?

“From our perspective, a traditional career path looks like an endless ladder constantly sprouting new steps, while we’re all still on the ground, jumping for the first rung. So we’re looking for ways to avoid that ladder altogether — maybe by climbing a tree instead.”

claire thompson

All around me, I see people collectively responding to crises they didn’t make. We’re building stability in different things. And I’m so so so proud. I’m proud to count myself a member of this group of people who face down the problem and live it.

I mean, sure, upward mobility would be nice, but that’s no longer our top priority. Our priorities are living well. And making things we’re all proud of. And supporting each other. And in this atmosphere which has every reason to stifle us dead, I see my friends evolving new ways of living and connecting to the things that sustain them. I can go almost any day of the week to a farmer’s market in Seattle now. I share a three-room studio with a film student, and we’re rapidly becoming close friends through late-night dinner parties and rants. Two of my closest friends are living in intentional volunteer communities, serving affected populations and making friends with some really excellent people. Some people I know are teaching English abroad, some are teaching English here. Some eke their way from paycheck to paycheck at various shit jobs, either serving coffee or selling bread or coding internet things, dutifully curating loans they refuse to run away from. Some write, some make art. Some grow their own vegetables. Some make new kinds of families, based on shared values and friendship and silly-made-up traditions. Some are re-learning old professions that make us look sort of Amish, like woodworking or barber-ing or home-pickling. Some only buy used clothes, or make their own. Some play music. Almost all of them give titles or petnames to their apartments.* Almost all of them dance really hard to Ke$ha.

These are my peers: young people who make new values, and live them in contradiction to everything that says they shouldn’t be able to. Every time I want to fall over and crawl through the desert of my exhaustion, one of them picks me up, dusts me off, and inspires me to keep on keepin’ on. The smartest people I know: also the bravest. Being an adult in 2013 has few obvious external waypoints–it’s instead marked by an attitude, a persistence  a resourcefulness, and above all, the courage to live in uncertainty. It’s a pretty great time to be alive.

A READING LIST FOR Y’ALL I quoted this above–a really positive article about how our seemingly apathetic and uncommitted approach to life is the natural outgrowth of a new value system in which we believe experiences in themselves are more valuable than the gradual material progression and acquisition of stuff we view as “adult things” a sad but tru story the blog Kate mentioned which is hilarious and incredible that’s where I stole the picture from, also it is how i am feeling sometimes telling it like it is “I live in a culture in which almost everyone is obsessed with the idea that they must become happy.” really excellently observed piece about how fear can govern our behavior when money gets tight, also on how america is a weird place anyways. also there are a ton of travel articles on this website all written by super interesting people so read a lot of them anyways  like humans of new york, in that it offers potraits of lots of different individuals, except it explicity deals with young people of all stripes dealing with whatever it is america is these days

*The Zoo, the Parlour, the Henhouse, the Garden, the Citadel, the California House, Casa Ravenna, etc. Lots of examples.  it’s sort of inspiring to hear all these names which redeems shitty housing and turns it into an idiosyncratic home.

  1. Matt said:

    Great post, Ernie. You’re spot on with the frustrations we 20-somethings are encountering in our attempt to pursue fulfilling lives while managing 5 figures of student debt. It can be crushing at times, and doesn’t leave us much flexibility for leading the lives we always dreamed of.

  2. katewill said:

    Ernie! It’s hard/wonderful to read this for a bunch of reasons . . .

    It makes me face (again) the giant injustice that’s been perpetrated on your cohort. Everybody knows the shape of it by now, right? Go to school, do it on borrowed money if you must, the payoff will be there . . . not how it’s playing out at all. Too many of you got the debt and then were launched into an economic system that doesn’t actually work. Thinking about any giant injustice sucks –feels overwhelming. On this one, I’d just say that you’re right; it’s not fair and there don’t seem to be any good answers.

    As you know, though, “fair” is pretty much a meaningless thing after a certain point and in the context of the planet as a whole. I’m saying, this post made me glad b/c THE COURAGE TO LIVE INTO UNCERTAINTY is actually the entire game, the complete enchilada, the alpha & omega, whatever — and here you are, knowing that decades before you might have. Nicely done. Living into predictable circumstances & outcomes is for pikers.

    Also, for the record? Utah’s ineffable bestness is still a fact. (Lately his thing is to go in the back yard and sit in the dirt while sniffing the air.)

    Miss you.


    • Beautifully summarized, Kate.

      I have been finding courage living into uncertainty throughout these two years in JVC. It is encouraging that others are doing it too. I think that community feel is going to be the key ingredient in making these coming years some of the most important years in the history of our nation. We are finally beginning to illuminate how dangerous the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality is. Communities are bountiful. This world should have never been about cut-throat corporate mobility. Unfortunately those are the dregs of societal structure that we dreamers are left with. Doesn’t matter. We are amazing, imaginative, innovative, loving, empathetic, and infinite. I know I am ready to re-sew a more supportive fabric.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ernie and Kate. Booyah!

      I miss you and Bruce and Utah’s bestness.


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