I can’t rely on the argument most millennials use when discussing the economic and employment situation in the US: the scam of college tuition and books, minimum wage not being raised, the crash of 2008, the rising cost of living. I was fortunate growing up: my parents provided for my tuition until I was 23, and I had the choice of many professional jobs having come out of school with a degree in aerospace engineering at a time when the housing market had not yet been obliterated by Wall Street. I had a fair shot at the American dream.
Instead of embarking on the path most traveled, I respectfully declined the typical 9-5 rat race. I chose to take whatever jobs presented themselves abroad and worked as a freelancer during my brief stints in the US. While this journey led to some amazing experiences and enough work to stay afloat, it hasn’t made me rich. But, I can’t say with any kind of certainty that I would be in a better position financially if I had chosen the traditional path after graduation (that is, get a desk job with benefits, find an apartment with reasonable rent, start saving, meet someone, start settling down) And maybe I would have bored myself to death staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day; maybe I’d never have discovered what I was capable of with my nose to that grindstone.
The truth is, we should all be able to find more fulfillment in our lives. Some may not be content in an office environment for nine hours a day 365 days a year, but for others, if they have a rich social life, maybe it’s enough. In terms of travel, what some people only get to experience once or twice a year I thrive on day in and day out: that feeling of exhilaration as you’re waiting for a flight; the uncertainty when you finally clear customs and wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into; finding yourself in different surroundings with different people every day.
My life abroad vs. my life in the US
The question I hear the most often is: What about the cost? When I decided to move to Japan to teach English at a private academy, I had $2500 in credit card debt from purchasing a new MacBook plus incidentals, a few thousand in savings, and a decent wardrobe. Half of my flight was covered, the deposit on my local apartment was paid, and I had a support system of native English speakers and coworkers to assist me if something went wrong. The only reason I didn’t pay off that credit card and accrue some savings was a matter of choice; everything I made went towards weekend trips.
When I moved back to the US, I was rudely awakened to the average cost associated with forging a life in a major American city. In Seattle, when I had a full-time salaried position in event planning, I went into debt just trying to survive. My cell phone bill was $85/month. Insurance under Obamacare for someone in good health is apparently still $200+/month… in other words, unaffordable. Choosing to have my own place to call home means spending 40-50% of my income. And when one of us chooses to vent this frustration to the world, we’re vilified as entitled and lazy.
I tend to look at these costs through the lens of someone who has, for the most part, avoided rent, leases, and contracts for the better part of ten years and see only waste. How can anyone justify spending $2000+ for an apartment when you could fly roundtrip to the Philippines and stay for a month, live and eat rather well?
The truth behind the American Dream
Let me tell you what I believe. I believe someone working full-time in a country as prosperous as the United States should be able to afford his own place, a car, food, insurance, and maybe a little pocket change. And yet that’s hardly the case for anyone. It’s possible to build up to a sustainable career by accepting hardship in the short term, but it’s no longer a guarantee- that bank manager you see as you look into the windows after the sun has set is not thriving. If anything, she is living in the delusion that one day all her efforts will be recognized, and things won’t be so difficult. Is that the American dream?
The truth is we only escape from this trap by chance. Some of us have the proper connections and network our way into a good job. Some have solid support from family and don’t end up on the streets. Some are just lucky and have things fall into place—you can be a hard worker and still not have this happen. I’ve barely been in the US long enough to consider myself a resident, so forgive me for complaining about things most Americans have to deal with on a daily basis.
Is there hope?
I’m reaching a point in my life where I’ll soon have no choice but to try, and that means I’m screwed, just like everyone else. All my life has been about taking things day by day and searching for opportunities as they crossed my path. Some have been able to make sustainable careers this way – YouTubers, travel writers – but they are in the minority.
Not alone in believing in the lost hope of the American Dream, I join millions of others in wondering how to break this cycle, how to be noticed by employers who will not only pay a living wage, but reward productivity and provide opportunities for advancement. Maybe that can be construed as entitlement in this day and age, with more and more companies offering millennials salaries below anything sustainable for big cities and taking advantage of free labor under the guise of unpaid internships and hiring on spec.
I have to believe in more. I have to believe that it’s only a matter of time before all my efforts pay off, and I find a job that utilizes my experience, challenges me, and pays me enough to enjoy a meal at a fancy restaurant from time to time. I have to believe that.
But, to be honest, it’s getting more difficult every year.