Letters From Millennial Gen X Voters

A reader writes:

I just want to chime in on the (honestly fascinating) Millennial thread that you’ve been posting for the past few weeks.  As a member of Generation X, born in 1971, I find myself getting irritated when I see Millennials praising themselves for being so much more progressive and iconoclastic than the generation that preceded them. We members of Generation X were and are just as gay-friendly, pot-friendly, pro-equality, information-hungry and skeptical as these kids are; possibly more so.  We just had very limited political power due to our small numbers and the crushing weight of the generations above us. 

There were so few of us that in the 1990s, advertisers barely targeted us, and our mainstream cultural tastes were considered "alternative" – a contradiction I still find pretty hilarious.  I protested the Gulf War in 1991, voted in favor of medical marijuana in California in 1996, and wrote Bill Clinton an angry letter (which I sent via postal mail) when he signed DOMA that same year.  (I have to give him credit for sending back a well-written response, also via postal mail. In retrospect, I kind of wish I’d kept it rather than crumpling it up and throwing it away in anger.)

The recent political shift that so many of us are celebrating is decidedly not a millennial thing.  It’s the product of a combination of factors, including the explosive increase in availability of information to everyone, the fact that both Generation X (approx. 41 million members) and Generation Y (approx. 71 million members) are now of voting age, and the fact that those kids had us, their cool older siblings, to help shape their points of view as they were growing up.


I'm a Gen X'er, born in 1971. I graduated an Ivy League college and with scholarships, good paying summer jobs, and loans, ended up with just $20,000 in debt (though it seemed like a lot at the time). I worked for a few years and then went to a top public law school. Tuition was $7,000 a year when I started. I graduated with a combined $60,000 in debt, entered the workforce at the peak of the law firm boom, payed off my loans in a few years, bought a $400,000 house, and promptly quit my job to work for a non-profit at less than half my former salary. I haven't had a raise in four years, but I'm not complaining.

I'm interviewing kids who have no chance at the path I took.

The same law school education I got just 10 years ago now costs $25,000 a year (in-state), plus room and board. The little house I bought would today sell for $750,000. Mortgages are harder to get. Law firms aren't hiring and the non-profit I work for still starts lawyers at just $40,000 a year. Salaries haven't remotely kept pace.

So, on the economic issues, the millennials have it exactly right. And I fear even more for my children – what will college cost for them? How will they function saddled with so much private and public debt? I feel like there's very little I can do about it unless the millennials (a much bigger generation) rise up en masse. The boomers won't retire, so there's little upward mobility for my "sandwich generation." And the boomer politicians won't take even obvious steps to deal with the debt, climate change, and other issues. Gen X – the cynical generation, supposedly – may have it better, but many of us cast our voice with our younger peers. And that goes for social issues too.

Another is more cynical:

I am so sick of reading this thread: BOO HOO twenty-somethings. We're all knee-deep in it, so suck it up and deal.  I was born in 1970 and firmly in "Gen-X", whatever the hell that is.  AND I'm still paying off my student loans (I'm 42!!). I have about 8 more years to go and no, I don't have a fancy J.D. so I can make $250k a year to pay for it.  I have barely any debt except for a small house, a modest car and the student loans.

You think you're the only ones to have it bad: 1987 crash – no jobs to speak of, fresh out of college (see, we understand that too). Then I lost 60% of my 401k, all of my negotiated stock options, and my job in 2001 when I worked for a dot-com in Seattle. Then I lost even more of my retirement fund in 2008, so I'll be working until I'm 75 and eating Friskie's Buffet when I'm 90 if I don't figure out a way to make it up before my kids are in college.  If I can even help pay for that, because I'm sure I'll have to take in my parents who have no savings to speak of and have mortgaged their home three times over because yes, they're wasteful baby boomers.  And, I'm positive we'll be the first to have no Social Security benefits. 

But I don't care, because I have two beautiful kids who are funny as hell and enough money to keep us going just fine.  I'm sick of listening to the bitching and moaning about how bad it is for you, so shut it. At least you know what's in store. Consider yourselves lucky that your grandparents still have Social Security and pensions so your parents had money to raise you, not keep their parents alive and off the street.  You have plenty of time to keep saving, so do it.  No one is handing life to you on a platter.

Another Gen-Xer agrees:

I get sick of younger people whining about their college debt.  I graduated in 1997 with a B.S. in Computer Science.  My entire student loan debt was less than $18,000 from Stafford loans.  My interest rate was 7%. I worked part time and went to a local community college for my first two years and got an associate degree.  While in community college I completed some of my credits via CLEP to save money.  Then I transferred to an in-state public college and completed my bachelor degree.  All that really matters is that you get a degree from a four-year college.  It doesn't matter where you go for the first two years.

I know the cost of college has increased since I did my time, but there's no reason for anyone to finish school with $100,000 or more in debt.  It's simply not worth it.  No employer has ever asked me where I went to college or even asked for proof that I've graduated.  Even with my "no-frills" degree, my salary is still over $100,000 a year.

If you come away from your college experience with a mortgage-sized debt, it's nobody's fault but your own.