Most stories about "millennials" focus on middle-class, educated twentysomethings, while the ones who grew up poor or working-class are simply ignored. Welcome to Uncovered, a series that sheds light on this forgotten group of our generation.
Growing up in Queens, Vicky Checo spent part of her childhood living in a basement until her father and mother saved up enough money to put a down payment on a duplex. When she was 25 and a college graduate, she returned to a basement. This time her parents owned it.
If you believe the narratives about “millennials,” you might imagine Checo coasting along on her parents’ dime, perhaps staring at a faded Obama poster. But that wasn’t the case. “There was no $400 rent for me,” she says. “I paid $950”—plus electricity.
The reality is Checo’s family, like most American families of color—even those who have degrees and mortgages—are about 10 times poorer than white families. Checo was born to Dominican parents; her father immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 20 and became a janitor. Her mother was a babysitter while she was growing up.
Her parents “were and still are busting their ass,” she says. “That house is not paid for.”
Checo, now a 27-year-old administrator at a non-profit in Miami, tends to agree with some of the stereotypes of “millennials.” Perhaps we’re a little too obsessed with social media, and our dating values could use some work, she says. But the part about being lazy and leeching onto parents (as if that’s an option for everyone) she finds troubling.
“It’s a white picture they’re painting,” she says.
Before I got this assignment, I passed off “millennial” as a word that vaguely described me. I’m 25, and “millennials” are generally considered to be the 80 million people born between the early ‘80s and the late ‘90s.
But when I read that more than half of Americans over 30 think we’re irresponsible and entitled, and many in the workforce think we want things we haven’t yet earned, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It’s nowhere close to capturing the kids who grew up like me: poor, mostly of color, and in awe of our parents’ ability to provide for us. The media worries endlessly about how post-recession graduates are downwardly mobile, but let’s be real: For more than a decade, the median wealth among Blacks and Hispanics has declined—even if you have a college degree.
My story hardly reflects an “entitled” and “narcissistic” upbringing. Mom came here at age 17 from Puerto Rico, saving all her pennies after working 30 hours a week on an assembly line during high school. When she arrived, with little grasp of English and American culture, she was robbed of all her cash before she made it out of the airport. By age 30, she was divorced with three kids. We had hoopties and some bare Christmases. From age five until 22, I shared a bedroom with my twin sisters in the Bronx. At 19, I was a summer intern at the New York Times making more money per hour than my mom.
I don’t say these things for sympathy. I say them because, despite headlines that sometimes imply otherwise, my story isn’t all that uncommon.
Recently, Checo moved to Miami with her boyfriend to escape a “feeling of helplessness in New York City.” The fact that it’s nearly impossible to find a decent piece of real estate under $700,000 anywhere didn’t help. When she arrived, Checo lived in a garage with her boyfriend for six months while she worked as a secretary. Her boyfriend found work as a bouncer at a strip club. There was no parental start-up fund; instead she took the car that she’d purchased and shared frequently with her dad. She also took the money she once contributed to their monthly mortgage and utilities.
“Me leaving left a gap in the household,” she says.
For working-class millennials, especially those of color, the task of helping your family is often a necessary part of life. We aren’t told to get an internship, even an unpaid one to gain experience (suck it up, kid!). It’s more like: Get a paying job because it’s time for you to contribute.
“Right out of high school, my mom was like ‘you’re old enough, go find a job, I need you to start helping out,’” says Michael Thomas, a 21-year-old student who lives in Orlando. He’s never really thought about the word “millennial.” “It’s a new-age kind of thing, right?”
When I called Thomas, he was repairing the power button on a cellphone at one of those one-stop technology fix-it stores you find in strip malls. This is one of his two jobs—he also works nights at a pizzeria on the weekends.
Thomas is a junior at Valencia College, a local community college in Orlando. “Some people might think that ‘oh, you go to a community college, you must not be very smart,’” he says. But his reasoning has nothing to do with laziness.
Valencia is a feeder school into University of Central Florida, Orlando’s (and America’s) largest public research university. Thomas, who built his first robot in the seventh grade after learning most of his skills off of YouTube, studies electrical engineering and dreams of working for NASA. In a climate wherein many students of color take out loans to attend college, his choice of school was a smart bet.
“Growing up without a lot of money, my mom wasn’t one day like ‘oh, surprise’ we have a student fund for you,” he says. “So I had to figure it out.” Thomas and his mother, a divorcee originally born in Mexico who works at a dry cleaners, split the $900 per month rent for their apartment, a deal that works out for both of them. “At some point I will grow up and leave,” he says. “But right now, this is the best choice.”
But what about the millennials who grew up with the basic American dream: a home, two parents without debt, good schools? Even if their parents eventually attained a bit of upwardly mobility, it doesn’t mean they’re always in a position to support their children into their twenties.
Jessica Gardenhire, 24, is an architectural drafter living outside of San Francisco. She grew up in a suburb south of Cleveland where less than 3% of residents live under the poverty line. Gardenhire, who is black, says her family lived on the “broke” side of town—though she admits her version of broke doesn’t compare with the version her parents saw growing up in rural Kansas and Tennessee. “If we lived in those parts, people would look at our house and say ‘oh, what a nice home you have,’” she says.
Gardenhire’s parents are ministers who provided for her up to a certain age, and then instilled in her the same work ethic and frugality that allowed them to buy property in Ohio. “They made sure I understood the thought process behind earning your money and being grateful for what you have,” she says. At 16, they told her she needed a job. Her first was at a senior home. Later, she spent a few summers doing overnight inventory at stores like Walmart.
At Cornell, where she studied architecture, she, like many American college students, had loans to pay and held two jobs during school to get started on them. Today more than 50% of her income goes to rent, but she tries to pinch enough to take care of her loans as quickly as possible. “My parents worked really hard to live a debt free life now,” she says. “I couldn’t possibly ask them to take on any more debt on my behalf.”
This sense of respect and indebtedness to parents and loved ones who made life easier was a common thread for all the twentysomethings I spoke with. And although each one could attest to at least one friend or well-off relative who lacked this empathy, all agree it isn’t factual to label a whole generation as lethargic parasites who view parental support as a given.
“They worked hard and had to struggle, but thanks to them, I don’t have to struggle, I just have to work hard,” says Miami Rahaman. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh when she was born. Upon arrival, they opened up a small shop selling oils and natural fragrances in Harlem.
Rahaman, a 20-year-old junior paying her own way at St. Johns University in Queens, had never heard of the word “millennial” before I called her. When I rattled off some stereotypes, like an absence of gratitude, she was reminded of the young patrons she serves at the Midtown Manhattan restaurant she works at. “I sometimes feel a sense of entitlement from them,” she says.
Last year, in an attempt to gain some independence from the restrictions her parents’ religion sometimes place on her, Rahaman left the East Harlem apartment she grew up in with her four siblings for a room in Jamaica, Queens. “Some of my friends were like ‘stay at home and do what you want anyway,’” she says. “But I could never do that to them, because I know they worked really hard to provide the roof and the food.”
Still, after living on her own for a few months and recognizing the costs of doing such a thing in New York City, Rahaman and her parents reconciled and she moved back. “I realized I could save so much more if I came back,” she says. Other prudent twentysomethings who’ve been in her shoes understand the tug.
“The odds are stacked up a lot higher against us,” says Checo, defending her own stint at home as one of her better options to confront today’s economic realities. “Only the people that have that support are going to be able to come out fine.”
Andrew Boryga is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who has been published in The New York Times, NPR, and other outlets.