It’s only February and already I have an election year mind. What was once a well-sorted filing cabinet is now a desk piled high with newspaper clippings, half-remembered scandals, embarrassing photographs, and spurious rumors from a thousand different strangers. Every day I confront this desk in terror, looking for the magic key that makes the pile add up to something, but I never find it. The curse of the election year mind is searching for order in the scholarly equivalent of a hoarder’s storage unit auction.
There is no order, there’s no story that ties everything together in a ribbon, it’s just not there, so I’m clearing the desk off and shredding everything. Let’s start from scratch. How is Bernie Sanders getting so much traction when the Sure Thing, Hillary Clinton, is treading water in what remains of the old guard establishment?
I don’t know. The press has led me to believe this is a question best answered by spreadsheets. But permit me to take a crack at it. Now, where I come from, Bernie Sanders is a communist, and the kids who support him are entitled bums. They don’t know the value of a dollar. They don’t know about hard work. They don’t know how to get what they want, so they have to make somebody else get it for them. This is the participation trophy generation. They need a kick in the ass and they need to go and start their lives. Leisure made our children commies.
Those are red state America’s marching orders, albeit at varying levels of belligerence depending on the region. That’s the mentality I see everywhere. It’s the dominant line of thinking. And there are two problems here. First, there’s the eternal one. The older generation calling the younger generation weak. And that one’s universal. It’s probably happened to every generation in history. I’m sure there were people born in the 1860s who thought the kids dying of mustard gas in World War I were sissies.
Hell, my grandma grew up on a ranch, and she strangled chickens in the sink with her bare hands. There’s no way for me to compete with that. There’s no realistic way for me to replicate that. It’s just not how people get their chicken anymore.
But the other problem is things not said. Whenever the older folks talk about millennials being overgrown children too pampered and soft to leave mom’s basement, whenever the entitlement problem shows up again, it ignores what happened to our country. The middle died.
I am a broke millennial and I am surrounded by broke millennials. I’ll refrain from generalizations, but me, my family, the people I know, we work like hell when the work shows up. There is no absence of ability or desire to work hard, there just isn’t any work. What apathy there is, is apathy born of not having a reason for being. In a regular town, not a city but a town, where rent is not starkly and hideously impossible, there are no jobs that can steer us toward the middle class. We can kill ourselves working and it won’t get us out of paycheck-to-paycheck dread and exhaustion and nerves.
There is a ceiling on what hard work can do when you’re in the stock room of a big box store. And there is a ceiling on how much hard work you’re allowed to do in the first place. When I hear millennials talk about work, it’s “I didn’t get enough hours” and “they won’t make me full time” and “I wonder why my back is so fucked up.” It is never the soulless, bloodless marketing vision statement platitudes about “authentic workplaces” and “fulfillment.” It’s not enough hours and not enough money and too much pain.
What people don’t notice, when they say millennials are entitled, the thing they gloss over, is that it all went to shit. The Horatio Alger strategies of the ’50s and ’60s, they don’t work anymore. Have you seen the jobs available to an average person at an average place in this country? There are no ladders to climb. Everything is service jobs hovering at minimum wage. Salaries that allow you to survive but totally shut out the possibility of starting a life, which requires an escape fund and a plan.
And here’s something that happens when you’re trapped in that survival income: none of your money will ever add up to anything. If you make $12,000 a year, saving it feels futile. You’re just putting up levees against dental work and blown head gaskets. You’re not saving for a nice and shining future, you’re steeling yourself against doom. So whatever money you can blow on frivolous escapism and vice, well, go ahead and blow it, because it will never meaningfully contribute toward a way out of your life. A hundred bucks can buy plenty of distractions but it’s barely a drop in the ocean you need to cross if you ever want to get the hell out.
There’s just not much to do that feels tangible and real. Jobs that make human being money, aside from the army, are illusory and largely seen on television. If you work at a Shell station in Prineville or a Kmart in Shawnee, you’ll really only know people in the service industry. There are no magic phone calls to make to get the ball rolling on changing that. You’ll have just about enough energy to hold down that job and be on the lookout for addicts who might steal from you. And college is a shot in the dark, too expensive and not enough of a sure thing to provide an exit strategy like it once did.
America wasn’t like that fifty years ago. There were tangible dreams and your friends gave you a blueprint for following yours. That’s all gone now.
Here’s the thing about Bernie Sanders. If you’re a working class millennial in 2016 and you’re not plugged into the pulse of some big city, if you didn’t get four years in the womb of a well-manicured college, politicians don’t give a shit about you. You are invisible. You are worse than invisible. You are irrelevant. Bernie Sanders isn’t campaigning on free marijuana and Xboxes. He’s not pandering to the entitlement of a bunch of kids drooling at screens. He’s just admitting that Jenny at the Modesto Dressbarn actually exists, and he’s admitting that a lot of things are ruined, and he’s saying it like he means it, and he’s providing a way out of the wreckage. Nobody else is doing that.