Millennials Feel Powerless. How Can We Change That?

I recently wrote about the power of a Fuck Off Fund. Now I think it’s time to talk about the power of Suck It Skills.

I remember that powerless feeling. Me, mid-twenties, a small-town reporter making $28,000 a year. I kept getting further and further into debt because I wanted all the “and’s”: To be a writer and to get what I’d seen on Beverly Hills 90210 and be able to go pay someone $5 to make me coffee whenever I felt like it.

Then I’d get those overdraft fees that turned my bank account even more negative. Then rent would be due.

I joined Peace Corps. Mostly because I sensed I was a terrible person.

My awareness of the privilege I’d lived in all my life expanded with every barefoot child who boarded the bus, trying to sell me lollipops, and with every friend I made who would have to struggle all her life simply because she lived within those borders.

I had been kind of a terrible person, a member of a brainwashed generation, raised by commercials and Photoshop and marketing departments. In South America, my brain got flushed out. What I learned down there helped me understand the laws of the real world, recognize what I already had, and fight my way out of debt while still chasing those things I most wanted, i.e. life as a writer. It quashed the sob story I thought I’d had.

A few days ago, Yelp worker talia jane wrote a poignant open letter to her CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman, about living on her wages in San Francisco, which got her $8.15 an hour after taxes. Yelp fired her, as she predicted they might, but the CEO said it wasn’t because of the letter.

Her letter went viral, as in more-than-a-million-reads viral. Tweets-from-the-CEO viral. Scathing response in Business Insider viral. Nice-but-chiding response to the scathing response viral. Interview for Vice’s Broadly viral. GoFundMe campaigns raising thousands of dollars viral.

In the comment sections of these various posts, many people supported—but other people judged 25-year-old Talia, and the words they used most being “entitled” and “Millennial.” Those same people would have judged 25-year-old me, too.

Like Talia, I am labeled as a Millennial. But I was born in 1982, and, at 33, I’m eight years older than her. I’m like Granny Millennial. All my best Instagrams are behind me, but I’ve also got a little more life experience now.

Talia’s not asking for fame and fortune; she just wants to be able to buy groceries and maybe get started writing. She wants to be able to take care of herself. It took me until after Peace Corps, it took me until my 30s, and it took me getting smacked in the face with some life lessons, before I was able to figure out how to do that and pursue the life I wanted, one as a writer who could still afford to eat.

Here are the laws I learned:

  1. All people are selfish. I wish we lived in a world where we took care of each other, but mostly we do not. We live in a jungle, the animals that we are, and every one of us, save perhaps a few saints, god bless ’em, is scratching his or her way toward the personal existence he or she wants. I am selfish. Jeremy Stoppelman is selfish. I wish Jeremy would say, “You know what, I’m good with $50 million.” Wouldn’t it have been amazing if Talia’s letter had inspired him to take the rest of his worth, invest in his employees, and pay a living wage? But our system doesn’t require him to, and he doesn’t seem to want to. Though there are foundations (one from Yelp, in fact) and charities and saints, I’ve found that the most effective way to go through the world is assuming everyone wants what’s best for himself or herself. It’s a principle you can learn to use in the long-run to get what you want.
  2. The world owes me jack shit, as far as my dreams are concerned. While I dreamed of being a writer in my youth, I mostly waited for the Dream Job Fairy to leave me a job with the The New Yorker under my pillow. I had to learn that as an artist, my art was going to suck for years, until I got my 10,000 hours in. It didn’t bring people enough value to where they wanted to pay me good money for it, so I had to figure out something else to pay the bills. Life as an artist in America is hardish. However, once I realized how damn lucky I was already, with my flushing toilets and paved roads, I stopped expecting anyone to give me more. If there is a fairy granting wishes, let her grant them to those children begging around the world and going hungry even in this country. If I want a dream job, I learned I have to hustle for it. Not just hustle hard, but hustle smart.
  3. No one is going to give me anything — power, money, or a job, just because I ask for it. If people are indeed selfish, it goes to reason that they are not going to give away the thing they value unless they get something of equal or better value in return for it, or unless they are forced to. I believe in higher minimum wages. I will keep voting for a system where everyone who works 40 hours a week makes a living wage, (“Bernie! Bernie!”) but I will also keep arming myself against the system we have now, especially when it wants to pay me 79 cents for every dollar others make because of gender.

So here’s how I finally got more money and more power: I found something more valuable to give in return. Anyone can answer those phones at Yelp, which is why they pay people so little to do it. If they lose a worker, or if one embarrasses them with a letter, they can replace him or her with almost any able-spoken person on the street.

Money is a kind of power: the power to pay your bills, the power to move around at will, the power to feed oneself. And power — political power, authority, money — costs something to gain. There is only one kind of power, I realized, that is now freely accessible. So I did the only thing I could: educated myself online with skills that could solve people’s problems. I made myself more valuable.

I learned to waitress on YouTube. Then I learned to job hunt and interview better. Then I learned the most advanced functions of Microsoft Word to write professional documentation, and kept going. I went from temping for $10 an hour and serving on the weekends to writing proposals that sold millions of dollars in products and running company-wide programs. Life got much more fun, and I felt more power than ever to create the life I wanted.

This is why I continue to educate myself, relentlessly. And for the first time in the history of humanity, doing so is free from anywhere in the world with Internet access. This is the back door left open to the market that no one talks about. There is a reason they outlawed teaching slaves to read. Because knowledge is literally power, a kind of weapon with which one can arm herself.

I mostly educated myself on, a website that has taught me more valuable information for a low monthly fee than my college education did for $17,000, after scholarships. The more I learned on Lynda and from books — how to use Adobe InDesign, how to negotiate, how to get projects done on time — the more power I kept feeling during those crucial conversations that shaped my life.

Universities and libraries, such as the San Francisco Public Library, offer Lynda at no cost, along with lots of other free courses. It costs nothing to become an expert in, for example, Excel. Let’s say someone with money needs an Excel wizard to solve his problem. (Trust me, many professionals are faking it with spreadsheets and outsource a lot of what they say they’re doing.) If I have those skills, I am in a position of power to demand the money I want. They can’t just bring in anyone else. This is why people pay $20 for the basic Swiss Army knife with seven tools and $110 for the deluxe one with 19 tools. The latter can solve more problems. Which is why I aim for my skill set be deluxe.

But I’m not a knife. I’m a human! I no longer expect anyone except my friends and family to care. No one else who deals with me on the level of business will likely give a single flying fuck about anything except what they can get out of the deal, which is that whole selfish thing I was talking about. If they have a problem they can get solved for $9 an hour, that’s what they are going to pay. But if they need me to solve their problem because they have no idea how to use InDesign, and I can get them the professionally designed report they want, then I have some negotiating power.

Educating myself for 10–30 minutes a day did not solve my problems in a week. But over time, it made all the difference in the level of control I felt over my life. It’s worth noting that this is certainly not a catch-all cure for everyone in other realms of privilege, nor is it an argument against raising the minimum wage. It’s just the way I adjusted my middle class, average smarts life to thrive in the existing system.

I think it’s wonderful to get a literature degree, like Talia did. But if you have a hard time feeding yourself on what you officially studied in college, you have to augment that degree with a skill you can sell as soon as possible for as much as possible. The good news is that access to that skill is most likely free.

For me, what feels better than writing a letter to someone about how they make you feel powerless is writing a letter to someone saying you don’t need their pittance anymore, because you have better opportunities.

But I’m just one person who has recovered from being a broke and lost Millennial. I think self-education is the best tool, but I’m wondering what others have found.

So… you tell me: Have you felt, like Talia, powerless over your life? What advice would you give to others on how to dig yourself out of a hole and still pursue your dream job? How can young people go from floundering and powerless to slaying and powerful?

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