By Terence Zhao
The trope about how every child gets a trophy at sporting games just for participating is now long among the cliched staple of anecdotes that supposedly demonstrate how millennials are entitled brats.
It’s a narrative repeated over and over again to somehow prove that we millennials are bad people or, more specifically, why we might be (choose any combination of the following) greedy, self-important, self-obsessed, fragile, arrogant, unfit for the “real world” — and the list goes on.
In other words, there’s a substantial group of people — chiefly baby boomers — who believe that the fact that you received little plastic statuettes from your little league without necessarily having a winning record is somehow reason enough to demonstrate your unworthiness.
Which is rich, coming from the generation whose entire existence has been one giant participation trophy compared to that of the millennials. In fact, the boomers have had a running start.
During their first years as adults, annual cost of attendance at a four-year public school was $1,051 for the oldest boomers (Class of 1968) and $3,403 for the youngest (Class of 1986). These costs have since ballooned about tenfold by the 2006-07 school year to $12,805 and $28,896, respectively, even after accounting for inflation.
This is compounded by the simple fact of the matter is that a college degree is now essentially prerequisite to financial stability, even if it means taking out tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars (U.S. average is now $30,100 at the time of graduation) in loans to earn it. In other words, a high school diploma — which might have been sufficient during the boomers’ youth — will no longer cut it.
And even then, millennials still face an astonishing 45 percent underemployment rate, which makes actually landing a decent-paying job — especially one in your field of study — far from a certainty. They are also woefully underpaid compared to boomers. The average young worker in 2012 was paid about 58 percent of the average wage in the country, compared to young boomers in 1980, who were paid about 82 percent of it — in other words, almost 50 percent higher wages.
And, unlike the boomers and their prosperous times, millennials have had to navigate all of this — at the early stages of their careers, no less — in the midst of one of the greatest global economic catastrophes in human record.
With all this in mind, it’s interesting that millennials are characterized as entitled when, for all intents and purposes, we are not entitled to anything.
And this statement is quite literal. We live in a political era dominated by talk of cutting “entitlement” programs; beyond what we’ve already discussed, even government programs that boomers take for granted — Social Security, Medicare, and, well, free public schools — are now on the cutting board. And even our very being is threatened by the impending cataclysm that climate change is likely to wrought.
The simple fact of the matter (which critics of this generation will never seem to accept) is that millennials have been dealt a remarkably awful hand — in fact, the most awful in American history in economic terms, since millennials are the first generation in history to earn less than their parents.
For the average millennial born in the 1980s, the chance that they will out-earn their parents is less than half, which means that only a minority of millennials — who, whether by circumstance or hard work, out-compete most of their peers — could be winners of this economic game.
However, for the oldest boomers — those born in the late 1940s — the odds of out-earning their parents was above 80 percent. That is, just by virtue of their very existence, boomers are already almost guaranteed to be winners of the game.
Which sounds a lot like a participation trophy to me.
Should we stop giving kids participation trophies? Well, according to the people who keep referencing the cliche, it will do a lot of good. And I, for one, will be happy to hand back the certificate of participation I got in seventh grade for a thing I drew, and even reimburse the $5 gift card to In-N-Out that came with that certificate.
But is that really the best use of anyone’s time? Is there literally nothing else we could be doing besides taking tokens of affirmation from children?
I am not qualified to comment on the psychological impacts of participation trophies on children, but I do know a red herring when I see one. The way millennials are often portrayed in the media is a quintessential example of how groups of people become identified as villainous “Others” who are somehow different from — and less worthy than — the in-group.
By essentially associating millennials with whiny children through these improbable anecdotes, millennial-bashing commentators are effectively delegitimizing the unique and difficult challenges facing an entire generation. And as this narrative is repeated again and again, it becomes increasingly harder for anyone to take millennials seriously.
Which is a tremendous shame, because we millennials are not the “Others.” We may be young people now, but as time passes, we will become just plain old people, and our problems will become America’s problems, and our prosperity (or lack thereof) will become America’s prosperity. If we wait until then to recognize and legitimize the problems we face, it will sadly be too late.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.