Why is Everyone so Confused? (An opinionated analysis of millennials and bay area career culture.)

I love sitting in coffee shops in San Francisco and people watching, the city has a craziness about it that I can watch comfortably behind the window of a hipster infested, specialty coffee store. San Francisco has a lively beat and rhythm that seems non-stop during waking hours; This is something that I struggle to find in my suburban town, and love about the city. Despite my affection for this bustling city and tech hub, I somehow find myself very happy in my sleepy suburban town with people who are easily twice my age. The city is a day trip, or a weekend escape, but, even if I could afford it, I am not sure it’s a place I want to be in day in, and day out.  The startup central, millennial centric culture of San Francisco has slowly come to represent, in my mind, a peculiar similarity to a cultural phenomenon of confusion that I cannot relate to. ( Let me add a disclaimer here, early on that I don’t think every single person in our culture is confused, I know many very satisfied and focused individuals, however I want to explore what I am seeing as a widespread trend that seems to be affecting more people than not.)

Like San Francisco, people today have an eclectic, unsettled, always in a rush feeling about them. They like craft beer, and yoga, gluten-free pastries and sustainable living alongside expensive coffee (blue-bottle anyone?), and hiking. Linked-in profiles describe job titles as “Hacking Princess” or “Analytics Ninja.” It seems like no one wants to be doing the same thing in ten years. I run into developers who would like to own a bar in ten years, medical students who might want to switch careers and try patent law, marketing professionals who are thinking about becoming monks, and sales guys who would rather be known for climbing Mount Everest.

It’s not that I didn’t experience a healthy dose of identity crisis, I just experienced it in college, which, I’ve always thought, is when you’re supposed to figure it out. In the sixth grade I  decided I wanted to be a therapist, and it wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year that it became abundantly clear to me that I was not willing to make the sacrifices to do that. At age 20, I came to the painful realization that I was becoming too old to contemplate career paths like a ballerina, model, or astronaut.  Eventually, I bucked up and pursued several business internships and finally ended up at my current job as a marketing coordinator for a tech startup. There are days, nay moments, that I wonder what it would be like to be a professional model, or famous writer, but then I remind myself models can’t eat copious amounts of bacon and ice cream without the risk of losing their jobs, and writers have to write for a paycheck, and I wouldn’t want to turn a hobby I love into my only means of a paycheck.

It turns out that I am not the only one exasperated by the confusion that envelops people today. A recent article titled “Why Millenials Can’t Grow Up” in Slate magazine described in depth the confusion faced by Amy ( not a real name) who was contemplating getting a PH.D simply because she could  not figure out what she wanted to do with her life. The author Brooke Donaton, is a psychotherapist and she examines Amy in light of a generation of people who have grown up with the concept of “emerging adulthood” and describes this generation as one plagued by depression and guilty of being unable to make decisions themselves, a situation she blames on helicopter parents. Donaton describes Amy’s struggle to manage her time without the guidance of her parents in college. While such behavior may be accepted, and even normal, in a 21 year old, the woman described in Slate’s article is 30 years old.

Donatan describes the change in the coping mechanisms of youth today by comparing the way a breakup was dealt with in the past and the way she perceives some people deal with it today.“A generation ago, my college peers and I would buy a pint of ice cream and down a shot of peach schnapps (or two) to process a breakup. Now some college students feel suicidal after the breakup of a four-month relationship. Either ice cream no longer has the same magical healing properties, or the ability to address hardships is lacking in many members of this generation. “Millennials are often blamed for thinking too highly of themselves, and being labeled as narcissitic. Donatan contemplates effect of this narcissism  “ Maybe millennials are narcissistic, like most 14-year-olds are.”And feels that perhaps narcissim has led to a lack of what she calls “frusteration tolerance” or an inability to cope with tough situations. Donatan, unlike me, has hope for this generation and states that “Maybe they will outgrow their narcissism later in life if 30 is the new 18. We don’t have the data on what millennials will be like when they are 40. But more importantly, they need to learn how to cope.”

While the Slate article focused on an individual’s confusion, another article in the Atlantic, titled “Study: Millenials Deeply Confused About Their Politics, Finances and Culture” examines the findings of  a study which pointed out exactly how contradictory many millennials beliefs are. For example, most millennials like Obama, but not Obamacare. Many believe social security benefits will not last to benefit them, but oppose cuts to social security. Perhaps the most chilling contradiction for me was regarding our willingness to connect with strangers through multiple channels, while simultaneously claiming that few people could be trusted.”Here is a generation that trusts peers enough to meet random strangers in bars on Tinder, ride in cars with strangers on Uber X and Lyft, visit strangers’ apartments through Craigslist, sleep on their beds through Airbnb, and we’re also the least likely to say “most people can be trusted?”

Another shocking finding discussed in the Atlantic article was regarding millennial stance on social policies. While most of the millennial generation is for legalizing gay marriage and marijuana, we have the same division of views on abortion and gun control as generations before us. This finding actually made me question the validity of the study, or perhaps the finding is just a shock to my West Coast and liberal upbringing. After reading all this conflicting data on millennials, I question if lumping people into groups by age is really a good idea. Perhaps confusion isn’t a generational issue, but rather one more segmented by location. I know many a 40 year old that seems just as confused as my 20 something peers.

I don’t think my view is unwarranted, in fact, I feel than many feel that the bay area is a confusing place to live. One woman aptly describes her own experience as a 36 year old in the bay area in this  article for The Bold Italic. She states that at 36 it has hit her that she is now in her 30s and that the only adult milestone she has achieved in her life consists of buying a condo, and laments that she still has not figured out her career at 36. Her situation doesn’t strike me as unique, but rather telling of at least one of the issues many people in the bay area face. Some may have a career figured out, but not a partner or children. Others have a partner, and a job, but not enough income to afford a house or kids. It makes me wonder if it is not that the bay area has a culture that dismisses traditional milestones, but rather it’s a place where they may not be achievable for many.

In fact going back to the window of my hipster coffee shop in San Francisco, it is not uncommon for protestors to vehemently chant about the gentrification of their city. This gentrification may at least be partially to blame for the inability of several people in the bay area to be able to achieve what were once considered typical life goals. Some have begun to describe this phenomenon as the Silicon Valley Class war. An article titled “In This Silicon Valley Tech Culture and Class War We’re fighting About The Wrong Things” on Wired described the impact of the tech boom on the working class of San Francisco, majority of these incidents such as the BART workers strike and the Google Shuttle protest took place in 2013. Two years later, I only see tech companies and their workers living and thriving in the city, the locals have become out of date, gentrification is in many way’s winning. The Civic Center Bart Stop in SF, which was once considered the sketchiest stop of all, is now home to Twitter and NEMA, an expensive apartment complex, no doubt home to many a tech worker. 

Perhaps confusion, and uncertainty is the new normal, and I am the one who is out of date. Today, old monumental establishments such as the Buena Vista Café in Fisherman’s Warf founded in 1912, famous for bringing Irish Coffee to our shores in 1952, coexist with new, hot, happening restaurants such as the highly anticipated Liholiho Yatch Club, which will feature Hawaiian-Indian Cusine.  When I finally leave the comfort of my coffee shop, and face the cold, usually foggy streets of the city I encounter millennials, particularly in SOMA, Haight and the Mission, however I also run into homeless people, working class construction workers, and elderly couples, roaming the streets of Nob Hill, and enjoying the view from their rent controlled apartments in the Embarcadero. One trip to China Town or  a run into the masses of professionals of all ages and social classes rushing to catch BART, or the Muni reminds me that this city is growing, adapting, and changing, albeit at its own pace, and not without a fight.

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