August 28, 2010
An economic snapshot
As many people probably noticed, the New York Times Magazine did another long piece (“What Is It About 20-Somethings?”) on the Millennial generation’s struggle for economic independence and continuing failure to meet “markers of maturity” last week, which I actually give some credit to for being slightly more nuanced and objective than most of the Times’ coverage of the topic, investigating the work of social scientists who say that “emerging adulthood” is a whole new stage of human development that needs to be accounted for versus those who disagree, and the history of how life stages have been classified as necessary states of psychological development rather than cultural phenomena. Salon.com ran a companion piece from one of their bloggers, a more stereotypical lament (“I became an adult at 22: Why can’t you?“) that 20-somethings can’t seem to grow up and get out of their parents’ houses. Both garnered many hundreds of responses.
A lot of commenters say that the problem is that 20-somethings are either entitled or spoiled; we just won’t or can’t figure out how to do what it takes to be independent: we won’t accept a lower standard of housing, we won’t live with roommates, we won’t work multiple jobs, we won’t do without our luxury coffee drinks and expensive toys, we have to have our parents paying our iPhone bills, we just don’t understand how harsh real life is and how hard the future will be for us, having grown up so coddled and with no work ethic.
And there are a lot of people, bless them, attempting to be helpful and supportive, insisting that no, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to survive out there on what entry-level jobs pay.
This culminated, for me, when I commented tangentially on a Times comment board (for an article concerning people whose total 99 weeks of unemployment insurance is about to run out) in response to someone who had insisted that it was not, that yes, it IS possible to survive in New York on under $400 per week. That actually, I was doing pretty well in the weeks that I made $400. In reply, another commenter said that I must be “either 20 years old, living in a cardboard box, or a liar.”
Except that here I am, and a lot of people my age, not 20 years old, not living in a cardboard box, doing what one faction says we just won’t do and what another says we can’t.
And I don’t write this to claim that everyone should be able to do what I do, or that I’m necessarily representative of more recent college grads (the economy hadn’t yet *completely* sacked out when I graduated six years ago), or that scarcity of fair living wages isn’t a problem for young workers, or to belittle 20-somethings who can’t find a job right now and/or have made a rational and well-informed calculation to live with their parents for a while, or to complain about my situation. Just to point out that a lot of us ARE doing what almost every side of this increasingly boneheaded debate says that we are not: growing up, becoming independent, and doing whatever it takes to stay that way.
So here’s the snapshot of my experience: I’m 28 years old and I live in New York City on under $400 per week:
I live in upper Manhattan, in a lovely neighborhood which, as I’ve said before, I will not name, since it remains relatively undiscovered (and therefore relatively affordable) and we like it that way. Our apartment is rent-regulated, meaning that the rent can only be raised a certain percentage per year as long as the household income is under $170K. Even so, I spend more than half my income on rent most months. (As a yardstick, “affordable” and secure housing is generally considered as costing no more than one third of your income.)
The neighborhood is lovely, but the building management is not. It’s an old building, probably about 90 years, as we were told by a repairman working on the gas lines that originally powered the light fixtures, and it has problems common to old buildings, but our management company does not know how, nor do they care, to actually maintain and take care of it. We’ve had repeated and chronic issues with leaks, collapsed ceilings, buckling floors, electrical outages, gas leaks (one that nearly killed a neighbor and left us without cooking heat for a month), and lack of heat and hot water in winter. Our bathroom pretty much falls apart every six months, because our building management is unclear on how grout is supposed to work.
Why don’t we just move? Well, moving’s expensive and disruptive, and for our price range, we could only afford a building with different problems, and it wouldn’t be across the street from Central Park.
I work in the performing arts, and no, I did not expect to leave college with a drama degree and get a job with a living wage in my area of expertise. I worked a lot of different jobs to support myself while I worked my way up in my field. For four years while I worked gigs that paid no more than small stipends, I supported myself working in coffee shops, and then doing temp work. When the market for temp workers tanked in early 2009, I had little choice left but to support myself by my theater work alone. Some substantial gigs materialized in the nick of time.
I stage manage full-time now and make my living doing it. I am almost always working multiple jobs. I am well-acquainted with 12-14 hour days and 80-hour weeks, though those are becoming less common now that I don’t have a “day” job. (I actually had to be reminded by a friend that in most quarters, it is not considered “spoiled” to be able to make a living from one job.) It’s hard, but I’m thankful to be this busy, because it means I survive. I like my work; I’m thankful for all of it that I can take. My income isn’t stable, though; in particularly good months, I save as much as I can for the inevitable slow times.
I split rent on a tiny apartment with two roommates. We don’t have a television, so we don’t pay for cable, let alone flatscreen, high-def, DVR, whatever. I have a radio, and otherwise get most of my entertainment online and from the public library. Since I work at night, I don’t go out much to bars or movies. I don’t have an iPhone; I have a 3-year-old cell phone, the one that came free with my calling plan. I have a Macbook, which I saved for a year and a half for, and which isn’t a luxurious toy, but a professional necessity. The one I was using before this was 9 years old and 4th-hand.
A confession: I finally have an iPod. I wouldn’t even have bought one; a friend gave me her old one when my 12-year-old knockoff discman finally broke.
I don’t have a car, and will probably never own one again. Public transit is everything here, but the MTA wants to raise the monthly fare from $89 to $130 and do away with unlimited rides, which will be a real hardship for me since I’m often working multiple jobs per day.
I don’t buy new things very much. I use things until they’re not usable anymore. I have kitchen utensils and pots that date from my parents’ marriage. I only buy clothes on sale.
I don’t eat out much. I know how to cook, and I cook large dishes that can get me through a week: roast chicken and potatoes, casseroles, quiches, squash, rice and beans, and stews. I eat a lot of pasta, cheese, apples, and peanut butter. I buy produce in season. Still, my credit card is sometimes my grocery safety net. (I have hypoglycemia, so I can’t just eat less when my budget gets stretched thin.)
We don’t have a microwave, and we don’t have air conditioning.
Almost needless to say, I don’t have health insurance. My union does offer incredibly affordable insurance, but the way it’s allocated makes it problematic–you have to have worked a certain number of contract weeks semi-annually to remain eligible. It would be a great deal for someone in a long-running Broadway show. For someone in my situation, however, it would provide no continuity or security whatsoever, as I’d always have to be looking backwards and forwards three months to see if I’ll still have insurance at any given moment. I’m enrolled at a community clinic in Chelsea, with a generous income-based sliding fee scale, where I pay $30-$60 to see my doctor.
I don’t have a gym membership. My job entails a lot of physical activity, and I walk for both pleasure and exercise.
I get my hair cut once or twice per year at most. I do my own laundry. I’ve had the same pair of winter boots since I was 15 years old. It’s probably way past time for me to see a dentist.
So that’s it. I don’t think I’m whiny or entitled; I’m a fairly low-maintenance person who doesn’t need a lot of entertainment outside of my work, which I know I’m fortunate to have. I don’t think I’m living a luxurious or coddled existence here. I take care of myself, but I do without a lot of things that many people consider necessities, and that a lot of older people take for granted. This is just my reality, and I’ve worked hard for it, and so it peeves me to no end to be told that young adults just don’t have the work ethic or discipline or value independence enough to do this.
Because we are doing it.