An Open Letter To Those Criticizing Talia Jane and Other Millennials

About a week ago, I came across this piece in Business Insider. It was essentially a personal essay about one woman's tenacious journey from college graduate to bartender to her current career. The only problem with the essay? It was written in response to Talia Jane, a Yelp/Eat24 employee who wrote an open letter to Yelp about problems she saw with the company. 

After I read Talia's original piece, and then this follow-up by Sara Lynn Michener, I began to see what I thought was a great personal essay for what it really was: a piece blaming Talia, and many other millennials, for problems with the economy and common workplace policies.

In recent years, more and more research has come out to show that when you treat your employees better, they are not only happier and healthier outside of work, but they're better employees, too. Booming companies have taken to flexible sick time and paid time off policies, work-from-home policies, and have added more recreation and relaxation to the workday because of this.

Yet, there's been so much backlash against Talia Jane's piece, and I'm honestly not surprised. Almost every day, I see so many negative articles about millennials that it makes me sick. Is it possible that some people in this generation are lazy or make bad choices? Absolutely, just like it's possible that people in other generations are and do. But it is not a generational problem. It's a problem of blaming the people who are trying to work instead of blaming the system that traps them.

I don't know Talia personally. I've never met her. I have no idea exactly what financial, educational and economic decisions (and sacrifices) she made to get to where she is now. But I'm also not about to scrutinize her Instagram, looking for photos where she seems relaxed in order to argue that she's entitled and wants to be handed a job, like so many of her dissenters did.

I do know one thing, which is that she did a brave thing in a world where millennials and women are often punished for speaking their minds. She was a minimum wage worker barely out of college and she stood up for a problem that she saw: Her wages weren't enough to live in the Bay Area. Is this the fault of employers, for not paying a living wage in an expensive area, or is this a housing market problem? Probably a little of both, but the point is that we shouldn't be criticizing Talia, we should be standing next to her in this fight.

If you're like me, you went to college to pursue a field you're interested in building a career in. Now, I won't go into my life story in detail the way Talia (and several of her dissenters) have, personal-essay-style. I wouldn't want my readers to scour the internet, looking for ways to prove I'm a liar. But I did take on four internships while I was in undergrad, worked two on-campus jobs and worked several freelance gigs in my field to gain experience. When I graduated, for reasons related to a family member's ill health, I was unable to live with my parents. Instead, I got an apartment in the overpriced city of Boston (hey, it's no Bay Area!) with my girlfriend doubling as my roommate, so I could take graduate classes in a very reputable program to further my education while working.

If you're like me, you worked hard. Maybe harder than seems fair at times. If you're like me, you're frustrated that minimum wage is low and that college students have to do more than just graduate to get a job that can actually afford to pay the bills. If you're like me, you love and value the internships you took, but a part of you wishes they were always paid. 

I could easily chalk Talia's open letter up to her being young and naive, and think that she's entitled and wants to be handed free money. That's what a lot of other people who have struggled to get where they are, or are still struggling, seem to want to do. Instead of placing the responsibility on our workforce and the structure of capitalism, they want to place it on Talia as an individual. They ask questions like, "Why didn't Talia live with her parents after college to save money? Why didn't Talia go to a community college and then transfer to a four-year-school to avoid debt? Why did Talia accept a minimum wage job instead of looking for something that paid the rent?"

Since the original article went viral, Talia's spoken out on some of those issues, including stating on her Twitter that she did attend a community college and then transfer. It's clear from Talia's piece that she was in a position where she lacked some resources. She mentions at one point that she couldn't live at home. We don't know her circumstances, but there are many reasons someone may not be able to live with their parents. Perhaps their parents are dead, or abusive, or are too ill to take care of themselves, let alone Talia. She mentions her car breaking down, so it's clear she didn't have a brand new car handed to her upon graduating. 

But that's beside the point. The point is that Talia could have had everything lined up for her. She could have had all the resources she wanted, be privileged enough to have two loving, middle-class parents who paid for her entire education and gave her a brand new car, and she could still be struggling. Because that's the way our economy works.

We live in a global and highly technological economy, so it's getting increasingly harder and harder to compete. College graduates need to have years of experience (read: internships and co-ops, sometimes paid, sometimes not) under their belts to even hope for an entry-level job. Many college graduates take unstable, temporary work to try to get their foot in the door and pay the bills. They aren't given any benefits and have to take on a second job. Some people feel forced to study for a graduate degree just to compete. Others work a mishmash of retail, bartending and customer service gigs to save money while they apply for something in their field. 

Nobody should be starving and struggling in the way that Talia describes, if they work forty hours a week or more. If you read her letter and your first thought is, "Wow, she's spoiled," when she describes her coworkers as homeless and talks about how hungry she is on a daily basis, then you're missing the point. Talia wasn't even asking for a glamorous job. She was willing to put in the time and effort to move through the ranks to get to a job she liked more. She was simply asking to be paid a living wage for the location she lives in.

You may hear what I'm saying and think, "But Talia, or other millennials, could at least move to a small town or bad neighborhood where rents are cheaper in order to afford to live, if they can't live at home." That's also missing a crucial point, which is that many jobs and many industries are mainly secluded to large cities. Many people live in these cities (like Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago) so it costs more money to live there. Sure, a millennial could live in a small town. But it's vastly more difficult to find a job "in the middle of nowhere," as someone who went to college and interned in Western Massachusetts for four years could easily tell you. And many millennials can't afford to own cars, because the price of that extra debt is impossible, and public transportation is severely lacking in smaller towns and suburbs. 

In today's society, it's terrifying to put yourself out there with your name and face attached to it, asking for something that you're not getting from work. It's already scary enough to ask for salary negotiation when given an offer, or to ask your supervisor about getting a raise. Talia did that. She did it in a big, public way. She asked those hard questions, like: Why aren't I being paid enough so that I'm not hungry at work? Why do my coworkers need to set up GoFundMe accounts to pay their rent? Why is it so hard for someone on the verge of poverty to gain some workplace mobility? 

If anything, Talia's letter should serve as a rallying cry for every angry millennial who is sick of being misjudged as lazy, unskilled or entitled. Studies say that millennials, as a whole, care more about giving back than we do about success or money, but it's rare to hear about that. Instead, we hear about millennials who work at home with their parents and can't--or don't want to--get jobs. 

There are so many barriers for young people today as they graduate from college. We should be taking Talia's letter as a sign that this is a problem that needs to be fixed. If people earn a college degree, it shouldn't be this difficult for them to at least earn a living wage in their geographic location, even if their first job isn't ideal. People who are willing to work hard to survive should at least be given a fighting chance to do so. 

We need to read Talia's letter the way it should be read: as a criticism of the system in place, not a criticism of the people being abused by that system. Only by supporting one another can millennials buck the stereotypes unfairly placed on us, and build a more equitable future for all workers.