The Game of Struggle: Introduction

shutterstock_393025615Recently, I experienced a fair bit of childhood nostalgia as I played a round of The Game of Life. The game has changed substantially over the decades, but the principles remain simple. You are the product of a combination of your choices in life and the fortune or despair that can find you with the random probability of a little plastic spinner. While the game is different than it was during my childhood, the fundamental problem with The Game of Life remains the same: Nothing about it is realistic.

The Game of Life had a substantial opportunity to somewhat accurately reflect the trials and tribulations that an average life entails. With income inequality being more pronounced than any other time in recent memory, the game could have incorporated what we’ve learned through our continuous public discourse concerning privilege. Few words have occupied such a unique place in millennial minds as “privilege”. The concept has helped us to understand our place in the world relative to those who may have more or less than we do.

I understand that I’m making a bigger deal out of this than it really is. A board game is supposed to be entertaining, and I wouldn’t blame the creators if they did not make a single change to it. However, I am curious what would happen in a different game where, instead of contributing half your net worth to get a college degree, you incur a substantial negative net worth in order to get the same thing. A game that really reflected our reality would not let you choose your path. Instead, it would be determined by random chance, as it is so often is in real life.

As a result, I will be writing a series of posts under this hypothetical. It’ll be called “The Game of Struggle”. The two paths will be called “The Privileged Path” and “The Disadvantaged Path”. On a spinner with numbers 1 through 10, every number except 1 will result in the player being placed on The Disadvantaged Path. Also, if you spin a 1, you have to spin again until you get ten 1s in a row. If you fail to get ten 1s in a row, you will be placed on The Disadvantaged Path anyway. I’ll write posts from both perspectives, and we can see how different such a game would look from the ones we enjoy playing with our friends at kitchen tables. See you soon.

Millennials: What Industry Are We “Killing” This Time?

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Predicting market trends is an incredibly difficult science. These prognostications can make the difference between happy shareholders and a change in executive management. This is why companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertisements designed to absorb as much of your disposable income as possible. Millennials present one of the biggest opportunities for advertising in recent memory. But the tantalizing aspect of marketing to millennials is its exact undoing: We’re not one large chunk of people that all enjoy the same thing.

Millennials are defined as being born in the 1980s or 1990s. Just take a second to imagine how gaping that chasm is. It’s bigger than the difference between dressing like Eddie Murphy in “Raw” and dressing like Kurt Cobain in his prime. These two groups of people do not want all the same things. If we are to take the definition of “millennial” literally, two people born in 1980 and 1999 are in the same generation. One of those people probably has a couple of kids and a stable career. The other is a seventeen or eighteen year-old college freshman who is still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

All of this is to say that “millennials” can’t really “do” any one thing, properly speaking. We’ve all seen the articles claiming to know what industries millennials are propping up or killing. Everything from restaurants to golf to home ownership, we’ve seen it all. But this is the exact problem with treating millennials as a monolith. Some of us are running companies. Others of us are fighting with our college roommates. We’re not all the same. I’m certainly not advocating for sub-generations (although that may be more inevitable than optional at this point), but something has to give.

Rather, we need to wake up to the fact that being a millennial means different things to different people. To some of us, it automatically connotes social awkwardness and quirkiness (no self-reference intended!). But others think it means moving past the sins of our predecessors and carving out our own niche in this changing world. Just remember, “millennials” are not killing anything. We can’t all be seduced with one glitzy ad designed to titillate our singular sensibility. Each of us possesses our own power, and the only thing we will all do is use it as we please.

Refinance Your Avocado Toast

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In May 2017, Australian millionaire Tim Gurner criticized millennials for spending too much money on expensive delicacies, such as smashed avocados and pricy coffees. His thoughts on the subject were roundly mocked, and rightly so. He clearly believes that material success in middle age requires substantial discomfort and sacrifice in your teens and early twenties. To him, this was the lynchpin of his own affluence, and the lesson must be universal.

But the question remains: Did Tim Gurner really never buy something for more than he should have? Would all of his struggles have been for naught if he had opted for the extra shot of espresso in his latte? That $0.60 really makes the difference between millionaire status and mediocrity, doesn’t it? This is all, of course, to say that Gurner’s stance is ridiculous and presents a solution for a problem that doesn’t really exist.

I know that I would have more money left over at the end of the month if I didn’t splurge on my occasional overpriced mixture of coffee and processed sugar. But what kind of life would I have if I didn’t indulge in the “nicer things”? It’s not as though I buy the most expensive bottle of whiskey in a bar or reserve every table in a restaurant so my friends and I can eat in peace. Most people I know wouldn’t do these things even if they had the money.

We should all be more aware of our disposable income, and strive to use it responsibly. (Or better yet, save it!) All of us could benefit from a greater level of financial literacy. Only a fool would say that he truly has nothing to learn. However, millennials are hardly the first generation that could use some discipline when it comes to saving and spending money. Many of our parents went into extreme levels of debt to afford the sort of lifestyle they felt they deserved as a result of their hard work. They took out loans for fancy cars and other luxuries, and helped to cause a worldwide economic crisis in the process

In fact, that same crisis helped to fuel the recession that left many of us in a position where a $4.50 coffee feels like a luxury. That combined with the skyrocketing cost of a university education and the need to take out student loans to even have a chance at an elite degree leaves us with nowhere to turn for that visceral rush of living slightly outside of our means. Instead of buying a house or an expensive car on a whim, we settle for coffees and avocado toast. In summary, if the Baby Boomers and Gen X would be willing to go back in time and prevent their irresponsible purchases from causing the Great Recession, we would gladly refuse to buy avocados for the rest of our natural-born lives.

“I’m Fine. Just Tired.”

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Millennials are one of the most derided generations in recent memory. People have called us everything from lazy and entitled to overeager and idealistic. Certainly the phenomenon of older people criticizing “the youths” is nothing new. But something unique has caught on among our nebulous group. We always seem to be tired. No matter when or how we are asked, we have become very adept at conveying our fatigue.

How many times have you found yourself in the following situation? You’re talking to a friend, and they notice you seem a little down. Truth be told, it probably has not been the best day for you. Maybe you had to work overtime. Maybe your boss was more of a jerk today than usual. So your friend says, “Hey, are you okay?” What is your response?

Nothing truly abnormal happened. You might be in a rut, but you don’t want to seem like you’re complaining. You know your friend probably has her own stuff going on. You say, “I’m fine. Just tired.” Just like that, your friend moves on and goes about her day. That part of the conversation is closed off until your friend works up enough courage to try to get you to reveal what’s really bothering you.

In your defense, you might actually be tired. We are, after all, overworked and underpaid. But are you really using the word “tired” as a catch-all for a bunch of other emotions and experiences? For me, “tired” can mean: frustrated, depressed, purposeless, angry, love-struck, smitten, confused, or anything else I may be feeling in the moment. So, is it fair to combine all of these qualifiers into the admittedly ambiguous basket of “tired”?

The answer is: Probably not. The people we love ask us how we are doing out of more than a mere sense of obligation. In fact, that’s what makes them different than the guy in the elevator who grunts a halfhearted “How ya doin’?” between the first and fourth floors. But we also don’t call ourselves “tired” out of a desire to mislead the people we care about. Quite the contrary. We do it so that they don’t worry about us. We do it so that we can trick ourselves into thinking that everything would be perfect if we had just gotten that extra hour of sleep. In all fairness, maybe it would be.

Even though we wish we could be perfectly honest with everyone all the time, this has become something of a functional white lie. It’s the same thing as when people say “good” when you ask how they’re doing today. Chances are, more than a few of those people aren’t doing so well, but say “good” anyway. Why? They don’t want to make a big deal out of their own strife. Even though our own suffering is of the utmost importance to our own minds, most of us know that the trivial bumps and bruises that we all pick up on an average day ultimately don’t warrant an explanation to someone who has their own stuff to deal with.

At the end of it all, it helps to have this out in the open. Just know that “I’m fine. Just tired.” probably really means “I’m not thrilled with exactly how I feel right now, but I’m not in any sort of trouble and there’s really no reason for you to worry about me.” I, for one, know that I say I’m “just tired” all the time, and I’m trying my best to avoid it out of fear of evading deeper problems. But be aware that the person using that phrase is probably going through something that is lower than the threshold of the need to explain it. They might be coming down with something, or simply not feeling the best. In short: They’re fine. Just tired.