class rage speaks
Ruminations on the personal experience of being poor and my journey toward being fully myself in spite of classism's silencing and setbacks. Here's to feeling a little less alone.
“Stop being so serious, you’re wasting your youth! You should be out having fun!”
“You’re young and free- you don’t have a mortgage or children to take care of. What reason could you possibly have to worry about money?”
“Sharing apartments and eating ramen are just part of being young- you have to accept that and just focus on having a good time!”
“Reach for your dreams! Don’t settle for a boring job, do what you’re passionate about, even if it doesn’t pay well!”
“You’ll regret it forever if you don’t enjoy yourself now!”
Who hasn’t heard advice like this? Whether on Tumblr, from parents or teachers, or from friends of the same age, I’ve found these ideas about what young people should do and be to be widespread in the culture I live in. And honestly, if I hear something like that aimed at me one more time, I very well may explode.
Having spent the past few years of my life around people who are predominantly upper-middle-class, I’ve become accustomed to a particular idea of what it means to be a young person. Young adulthood, post-college graduation, is seen as a transitional period where the young person is not expected to be fully independent or to have their life fully worked out. The emphasis is on self-discovery and personal growth, the parents are still around to provide financial and emotional support, and the assumption is that whatever money woes occur during this period are temporary. Doing what you love and/or having fun, it is understood, will either lead to or give way to a stable, lucrative career that will fund an upper-middle-class lifestyle. These are the assumptions that lie behind most advice to enjoy one’s youth without worrying about money or career- because, it is implied, someone else will be there to help if times are tough, and eventual financial security is a given.
I find it incredibly frustrating to try and discuss my current situation with people who have this attitude toward young adults. Besides people making assumptions about my life that simply aren’t true- like that my parents can and will help me, or that I can depend upon having a good, steady job in the future- I hate to have my very real financial concerns dismissed so readily. I worry about money because I have to, because no one else is paying for my rent or schooling or ongoing medical needs, because I have had no opportunity to amass savings, because my debt is looming over me and I don’t have the job-finding resources many of my peers have access to as a result of their socioeconomic status. It’s not a matter of just having to eat ramen and share an apartment for a few years. It’s being chronically financially insecure, knowing that I’d be unable to weather a serious emergency, and having no definite prospect of a time when that situation will come to an end.
All in all, I like my life, and I have taken some financial risks for the sake of living more enjoyably right now and doing what I’m passionate about. I’ve gone into substantial debt and endured a lot of personal turmoil to go to grad school, and I’ve limited my work hours this summer for the sake of relaxing and spending time with my partner rather than making more money. But was that all worth it? The latter was, but more and more frequently these days, I’m starting to doubt the former. The personal and monetary toll of pursuing my dreams has been great, and when those dreams are no longer sounding so achievable or attractive to me, I’m starting to feel like it was all a huge, expensive mistake. “Follow your dreams!” and “Do what you enjoy!” were dangerous messages for me, conveyed by well-meaning but ignorant advisors who didn’t understand my true situation, which found me at a point in my life where I was confused and vulnerable.
Perhaps the older people providing this kind of advice to young adults don’t remember what it was really like to be that age- the juggling of responsibilities, the importance of working toward future plans, the fear of insecurity. Perhaps these particular people just didn’t have to face substantial hardship when they were young, and assume that all young people live their lives similarly sheltered from difficulty. Conditions are certainly different today than they were when my parents were growing up; it’s much harder to get by now without a college degree, and the experience of looking for work has changed with changing technology and economic conditions. People of an older generation, especially those who have secure work situations and retirement plans, may not realize this. I know that I’ve had conversations with my own parents where they outright refused to believe how difficult it was for my college friends to find jobs, even with degrees from a prestigious university.
There’s also something to be said for the idea of taking time to figure out what you really want, following your dreams, and possibly enduring some difficulties in the moment in hopes of eventually achieving a loftier goal. Certainly, many poor kids aren’t encouraged or given the tools and information to explore every life path that really interests them. But “You can do anything you set your mind to!” is a double-edged sword; it may represent much-needed encouragement for some people, but it definitely ignores the very real limitations that exist for others. This kind of encouragement may be appropriate on an individual level in some situations, but when generalized or used by someone who doesn’t know the details of the life of the person they’re encouraging, it’s just ignorant and unfeeling.
Not everyone has the same options- or even access to the idea that options exist- and not everyone can functionally afford to wait for a job they like or chase a non-paying opportunity rather than taking a job in order to survive. Some young people, believe it or not, don’t have supportive parents or savings to support them while they take it easy, and have financial problems far more serious than not having quite as much spending money as they would like. Using your youth to follow your dreams and have fun is a great ideal, but it’s just not possible for many young people (including me!) to do that, and dismissing our worries with uninformed optimism not only ignores and misrepresents the realities of our lives, but provides us with one more person we can’t feel safe around.