Two months ago, I was at the office griping about the puny size of my paycheck, when I was sternly told off by a baby boomer colleague. “How much money could you really need?” he asked. After all, I only have to worry about myself, whereas he has to support a family. When I later complained that my millennial friend was having trouble finding a job after five months of looking, I was again shot down by my baby boomer and Gen X colleagues — clearly the problem was that my friend wasn’t trying hard enough. My brother, also a millennial, gets grief, too: He works in sales and is constantly on his phone, in and out of the office, but instead of being commended for working so hard, he’s reprimanded by my boomer parents for not being “present” when he’s at home.
And so it goes. I feel that as a millennial I’ve been singled out as being a whiner and a malcontent, dissatisfied with life and the world. And it’s not just my imagination — according to a Reason-Rupe poll, 71 percent of American adults think 18- to 29-year-olds are selfish, and 65 percent of them say we are entitled. A survey by project management company Workfront found that 55 percent of workers tag their millennial colleagues as the biggest complainers.
So are they right? Are millennials entitled and selfish? Should we stop whining? On the contrary — we should complain more and do it louder. Here’s why.
The trickledown from decisions made by older generations has hit us hard, and we’re right to call attention to issues not of our own making. Millennials — those born from 1981 to 1997 — are grappling with trouble on several fronts. College tuition rose 234 percent between 1993 and 2015. Currently 71 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients have college debt upon graduation, with the average graduate owing $37,172. Just two decades ago, only 54 percent of students graduated with debt, and it averaged $12,759. I have friends in Massachusetts with school loans as high as $60,000.
The Great Recession happened as many millennials — myself included — were finishing up college. That financial pain caused many baby boomers to delay retirement — thus leaving fewer job openings for millennials, who endure the highest unemployment rate in the United States.
Even if you can get that much-sought-after job, it’s no longer the Holy Grail it once was. In many cases, being employed isn’t enough to help millennials keep their heads above water. Americans between 18 and 34 earn less today than the same age groups did in the past. A typical millennial pulls in just over $33,000 a year, down more than 9 percent from what 18- to 34-year-olds made in 2000. I have friends who work 60-hour weeks, including nights and weekends, and make less than $30,000 per year. My younger sister is entering the job market for the first time, and the positions she’s qualified for barely pay enough to make ends meet, let alone create savings. Millennials make 20 percent less than their boomer counterparts. No wonder a staggering 13.5 million millennials, or 1 in 5, live in poverty, and 18 percent have been or are currently on food stamps.
According to the American Psychological Association and the American College Health Association, millennials are at the center of a mental health crisis. We appear to have higher levels of clinical anxiety, stress, and depression than any recent generation had at the same age. Suicide rates for Americans ages 15 to 24 have tripled since the 1950s, and suicide is the second most common cause of death for college students. The list goes on. Millennials aren’t buying homes and cars at the rates that older generations did — we can’t afford to. And we’re stuck in a time of hyperpartisanship that is painful, no matter what your party.
I realize we aren’t the first generation to have this problem — every generation is left to mop up problems made by earlier generations. The boomers themselves inherited the Vietnam War and the systemic racism that ultimately spurred the civil rights movement. But why do millennials get slapped with labels like “entitled” when we’re bringing up legitimate complaints?
Thankfully, complaining has an upside. Studies have shown it relieves stress and brings other mental and physical benefits. “Complaining can be beneficial if done in moderation and done strategically,” says Robin Kowalski, a Clemson University psychology professor who’s conducted research on the topic. “It can create common bonds among individuals and can call people out for their behaviors.” Kowalski adds that it can help you cope in difficult situations.
Because our age group airs its grievances on social media, Kowalski notes that older generations are “more aware of millennials’ complaints, and that’s not a bad thing. Mindfulness is important to bringing about change. If we know something’s wrong, we can fix it.”
So to my fellow millennials: Keep the complaints coming. We’re taking the first step to finding a fix.
Alexa D’Agostino is a native Bostonian earning her master’s degree in writing and publishing at Emerson College while also working full time in higher education. Send comments to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.