Originally published in Paste Magazine
Photo by Christopher Jue/Getty
Commentary on the ongoing feud between millennials and baby boomers has been done to death. Millennials are lazy and entitled. Boomers ruined our chances of ever being able to retire. No matter how much we harp on it, we’re not going to stop taking selfies and our parents aren’t going to stop asking us when we’re going to just settle down and buy a house already. However, a mentality that’s pretty widespread across both generations is that there are jobs that aren’t necessarily “worthy” of a living wage.
Now, few people who think the Fight for $15 is absurd would actually use the phrase “not worthy of a living wage,” because that would make them sound like dicks. But, you’ve probably heard that “service jobs are starter jobs” or “flipping burgers isn’t a career.”
The federal minimum wage in the United States is currently $7.25. Not only is the idea of being paid a minimum wage laughable — as in, your employer would happily pay you less if he or she was legally able — but it’s also ridiculous to think of supporting a family on just $290 (pre-tax) a week. It’s absurd to think of supporting just yourself on $290 a week. However, people continue to claim that a minimum wage is sufficient for workers, as opposed to a living one.
So what does this have to do with millennials and our contentious relationship with the generation that birthed us? Well, this lack of opportunity and funds hits particularly close to home for us.
A Different World
Our parents graduated from high school in a different world than we did. We’ve all seen the memes about paying for college with their summer job wages and buying a house at 20. While that was possible to an extent, what sets their world so far apart from ours was the fact that college wasn’t such a necessity. There was an abundance of well-paying manufacturing jobs that simply don’t exist anymore. Training on the job was sufficient for many white-collar gigs. If our parents did choose to go to college, they probably weren’t saddled with five- or six-figure debt upon moving out of the dorm of their directional state school.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average millennial in 2016 made $35,000 per year. In 1975, the average income for workers aged 25 to 34 was $37,000, adjusted for inflation. In 2016, 37 percent of these workers had bachelor’s degrees, while only 22.8 percent did in 1975.
In order to score a full-time, entry-level gig out of college these days, it can seem like you need two unpaid internships under your belt, management experience, a Ph.D and you still need to promise the hiring manager your firstborn child. There are simply too many bachelor’s degrees out there, and not enough jobs to satisfy them all. With all the student loan debt and rising rent prices, grads are forced to take jobs that don’t require a degree so they can, you know, survive.
While it would be fabulous to hold out for your dream job, it’s just not possible when Sallie Mae is blowing up your phone a mere six months after you toss that graduation cap. Many millennials are finding themselves in transitional jobs that tend to last a whole lot longer than the half-year student loan grace period.
According to a 2016 study from the New York City Comptroller’s office, approximately 71 percent of millennial-aged New Yorkers have at least some college education. The percentage of young people in low-wage jobs has risen four percent since 2000, and the number of young people in mid- or high-wage jobs, like the ones they go to college to break into, each fell by three percent.
Investopedia defines underemployed workers as people who are skilled but working low-paying or low-skilled jobs, and part-time workers who would prefer to work full-time. The underemployment rate isn’t as easy to nail down as the level of unemployment because there isn’t a defined formula to determine it or service sought by underemployed workers like your state’s Department of Job Security.
However, Accenture found that 51 percent of millennials reported being underemployed in 2016. While this statistic includes those Girls-style young people who may not be actively seeking the best bang for their buck, it also includes people working their ass off at a bar by night and an unpaid internship by day. Not to mention the individuals who have sent their resume off into the ether hundreds of times but have yet to score a job interview.
Service Jobs are Real Jobs
It’s important to note that college isn’t the only path a person can take. There’s a significant gap in the trades right now as boomers are retiring, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with working your way up in the service industry. People who enjoy keeping busy and socializing with the public thrive in high-energy jobs in restaurants or bars. Sure, some roles in fine dining or high-end retail establishments pay enough for their employees to live a comfortable and sometimes even lavish life, but that isn’t reality for most service workers.
What made an unskilled factory worker in 1980 more worthy of being able to support his or herself right out of high school, but not the barista who makes your grande latte every morning? Why is a manufacturing job considered a worthwhile career choice when any service job is considered a “starter job?” Ultimately, who are you to judge who deserves to be able to pay their rent and who doesn’t? It’s time we stop thinking of bartenders, baristas, cashiers and servers as people who deserve to live their lives struggling to make ends meet because they didn’t choose the confines of an office.
People are on the go more than they’ve ever been before, making coffee shops and restaurants some of the biggest money-makers out there. For every coal job that disappears, a multitude of barista jobs open up. Positions in the service industry are a necessity in this day and age, but they’re not treated like their unskilled predecessors. We ruin barista’s days with complicated Instagram-worthy drinks, and then have the nerve to shame them for not having a “real” job.
Depriving yourself of a latte or following the advice of the latest hip financial guru isn’t going to cut it when it comes to tackling the issues of underemployment and fair wages. Though many states and cities mandate a higher minimum wage than the federal one, there aren’t nearly enough that guarantee a wage that’s on par with the cost of living. We need to work towards fair wages for everyone, not just those working in the field on their diplomas. Though people will argue that paying all employees enough to live would be an undue burden for small businesses, The Guardian reported that the economy is stronger when low and middle-class workers spend more money.
It’s just like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said, “Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.”