Go to college, get a degree, find a job, buy a house, start a family, claw your way towards retirement one buck at a time. That’s the life blueprint that most Millennials grew up with. But what happens when the whole chronology goes haywire? When those cushy career jobs suddenly dry up? Bethany Taylor, a 31 year-old native of Hopkinton, NH was working at a small New Hampshire newspaper when the economy took a belly flop in 2007; taking her position with it. Since then, Bethany – who holds an MFA in creative writing – has lived on both sides of country and worked more jobs than most Baby Boomers ever did. Today, she resides in Davis Square and waitresses at a coffee shop in Cambridge.
This is Bethany’s story.
A recurring theme I’m seeing in these interviews is life after college taking many unexpected turns. When you were just a high school student, heading off into the world, what did you want to do with your life?
Bethany: Possibly become an English teacher. Though I never really saw myself instructing a classroom, and when I got to St. Lawrence University, I grew inclined to the idea of being outside as much as possible. I did a semester where we lived in yurts on the edge of a lake in the Adirondacks. I figured if I could avoid going to school in a brick building for one semester, I should take advantage of it!
Was spending time outdoors a big part of your upbringing?
Bethany: Yeah. My parents were active hikers and I grew up that way. And during high school, I’d worked at a camp in New Hampshire, which was really a wonderful experience. So that’s how I wound up opting to do the outdoor semester, and also how I determined my major – outdoor ethics in America.
Did you feel that your interests were putting you on a viable career path?
Bethany: Definitely not. It was more like, “Well, I’ll do this, then I’ll write about it, then I’ll live in the mountains, then – OOH, what’s that over there? I wanna go check that out.” I can’t really think of anyone I was friends with who was on a strict career path. People were just taking the classes that they wanted to, seeing where it went. Though, I tended to hang out with the green, hippie kids more than Greek system, which I’d imagine produces more investment bankers and such.
But surely even the hippies were musing about the future as senior year approached.
Bethany: I think the most common “career plan” I heard from my friends was going off into the wild and being John Muir or Edward Abbey. One friend, for a while, said he wanted to work in a box factory because he wanted to feel “boxed in” so that he would feel very free once he got back out to the woods. I thought that was kind of fucked up, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it. But I think a lot of this was partly because we graduated in 2004, and most of us were well out of the higher education system before the economy tanked.
You had room to breathe and experiment.
Bethany: I’d say we were being encouraged to learn for the sake of learning.
How did you feel when graduation finally dawned?
Bethany: I was really excited. I had work lined up for the summer, and this vague idea of moving to Colorado and being a ski bum in the winter months. I felt I’d learned everything I needed to at St. Lawrence and that it was time to go out and put it all into lived practice.
What was that first job?
Bethany: I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club, which is maintains trails and outdoor facilities in rural New England. I was posted at this hostel on top of a mountain called Mizpah Spring Hut as a crew member: I’d cook, clean, and converse with hikers staying there for the night. I was actually the hut naturalist, so each night, I’d be giving programs on wildlife and the local ecosystem to guests.
Judging from the tone of your voice, I’m guessing you enjoyed the job quite a bit.
Bethany: I think what working for the AMC so special was the trust that our bosses placed in the hut crews. Because when you think about it, we had an enormous task placed in front of us. You have a group of people between ages 18 and 24, they’re unsupervised in the woods, and you say, “Okay, you’re in charge as the front line of our organization, proving the highest quality service once can provide. We’re not gonna tell you how to do your job, but you’re going to do it, and we’ll help you.
There’s something you’ll rarely here in a tower block.
Bethany: Right? You’re just thrust into everything, with no time to second-guess yourself. Suddenly, you’re cooking five course dinners for 60 people solo. And obviously, the relationships formed in that kind of environment are incredible. I found something deeper with my coworkers from this time period. It’s easier to get to the core of who people really are.
Why do you think that is?
Bethany: In a place like a mountain hut, most people who choose to work there are going to share a base interest in the outdoors. And knowing that, you can kind of cut through a lot of the bullshit of “we have to get to know each other through levels A, B, and C.” The friends I made up there are people I don’t necessarily need to talk to every day, but if something goes wrong, they’re the ones I’m going to call because they know the deepest parts of me.
When the snows came and the hut was shuttered, where did you go?
Bethany: I kept to my Colorado plan, moved out there, lived with my sister, and worked in a ski resort and soup restaurant that was conjoined with the place. And for a couple of years, I enjoyed a really nice living bouncing back and forth between the east and the west with these jobs. Later, I spent a month and a half doing post-Hurricane Katrina relief work in Biloxi…which was what it was…and not long after, I moved out to Eugene, Oregon with a guy I’d been dating who was from the area. I worked in a nursing home there. Eventually, I came back to New Hampshire, spent some time on a construction crew, and finally transitioned into writing for a small newspaper in the northern part of the state.
Which paper were you part of?
Bethany: I was a reporter for the Berlin Reporter, which is a weekly paper in this rejuvenating mill city called Berlin (but pronounced “Burr-lin”.) I was 25 and I got the job with paper because I understood a bit about the town. I actually lived there for the first eight years of my life, before my family moved to Hopkinton. The town has a very particular attitude and it made sense for the paper to have a reporter who understood that attitude more than an outsider coming in. Still, I was extremely inexperienced, and since the Reporter was such a small paper, I was the entire news staff!
What kind of stories did you cover?
Bethany: I handled the police log – which was really fun – and also the primaries for the New Hampshire election. It was the winter of 2007. One of my favorite issues was the Thanksgiving issue. I got to write about Bill Clinton speaking at the local high school in Gorham (a neighboring town). I interviewed a man who carved and painted carousel horses. And then, because my editor was busy, I was also assigned to write the editorial for the issue. My byline was all over the paper because there was no one else around at the time. This was the first job I’d ever had where I got to write.
Given that you were reporting in 2007, how did the financial crisis worm its way into life at the paper?
Bethany: Not long after that Thanksgiving issue, my editor – who’d been with the paper for six years – announced that she was sick of the whole operation and quitting. Unfortunately, the Salmon Press Company, which owns the paper, decided it would be too expensive to hire a new editor and they wound up shutting down the office of the Berlin paper. They only kept the news reporter on as a wireless contributor – it was suggested I could operate from McDonalds, because of the free Wi-Fi. And that was my first inkling that something was really going wrong with the economy. Suddenly, editors found themselves in charge of two different newspapers, and if they didn’t like it, they were fired. The whole downsizing was handled really poorly.
Had you been stockpiling Plan B’s as you got wind of a possible recession?
Bethany: I hadn’t been planning to stay at the paper for a very long time, and I’d been applying to grad schools, for writing. I was still working in a mode of doing what interested me as opposed to what would get me a job. Because obviously, there’s not a huge lucrative market for creative writers these days (laughs). But I also felt that if I had a graduate degree, it would be easier for me to find a job that paid enough to cover my student loans.
I was just going to ask; you did have student loan debt, then?
Bethany: I did, and when I sent out my grad school apps, I didn’t fully take into account that I’d have to take on more loans in order to attend an MFA program. I started at the University of Montana – Missoula in the fall of 2008 and basically hid out from the worst of the collapse. It was a great experience – exactly what I wanted to do – and I’m very glad that I went there; and that I hadn’t tried to go a year later when everyone and their mother was applying to grad school.
As the bigger picture grew sharper, how did the enormity of the recession affect your confidence at the time?
Bethany: It was one of those things where at first, I felt like I wasn’t going to be hit personally. But the hardest part of the recession for me was when my mother lost her job. She worked for an environmental nonprofit in New Hampshire, for a long time.
Bethany: The way I look at it, I’m okay seeing overeducated people my age working crappy jobs. I realize that it means the less educated have fewer opportunities for jobs, but still, it’s really, really hard to watch your…brilliant, and very accomplished parent be in the same position as your scrappy college friends.
Once you’d attained your graduate degree, had the landscape changed much in terms of job availability?
Bethany: I’d been targeting jobs in the nonprofit communications and education fields before graduating. Once I was out, for the first few years, I began hearing very similar things from the hundreds of organizations I’d applied to work with. They were interested in filling the positions I’d applied for, but they had to wait until their budgets allowed them to do so. If your organization depends on the generosity of large donors, a recession is basically the worst thing that can happen. And it’s very frustrating to keep running into that again and again. The only good thing is that you realize it’s not personal; that it’s happening to almost everyone.
How often does the recession work its way into conversation these days when you see friends?
Bethany: I know a lot of people who aren’t in places where they can fulfill their potential, so there’s mutual discouragement. Today, I can’t tell if the economy is actually getting better or if we’re just settling for how it is.
Why do you think – nearly six years after the crash – we still can’t answer that question with conviction?
Bethany: I’ve been thinking lately that the recovery needs to address what the future is realistically going to look like. If we’re going to rebuild, I think future society is going to have to be smaller. Take things like Etsy – people doing craft projects and such. They’re not lucrative, but if you have a skill, you can put it to use. A friend of mine has taken up furniture upholstery, and I know others who are working on farms. It’s this “homesteader” attitude, and it might just be the people I know, but it seems that a lot of us are doing more with less. People seem to be looking more inward rather than waiting for the silver bullet of the perfect job to show up. I can’t help but wonder if that’s better in the long-term: smaller, localized economies with people doing small things. But I don’t know!
How much faith do you have that our elected officials will help guide us down the road to a more prosperous tomorrow – whatever it looks like?
Bethany: As much as I’m politically aware – volunteer for campaigns, call senators, etc. – when they talk about the economy, it doesn’t seem like they have any solutions. I don’t see how their expectations for the economy play into any of the jobs I’m looking at. Some of our values certainly match up, but I feel like people like myself who aren’t involved in very traditional jobs are being left behind in the dialogue.
Do you feel the majority of your friends are on a similar path?
Bethany: It does seem like most of us are approaching life with a more exploratory frame of mind. I know a lot of teachers, activists, and artists: a more eclectic group of people than people who have a job that’s 50 weeks a year with health insurance. I was at a brunch recently with friends from high school and it was like there was a line between the people on a traditional career track and people on the “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, but you know what, it’s kind of fun” path. But it was nice to see that people had made choices that were making them happy.
So comparing careers wasn’t an awkward affair, then.
Bethany: I think the economy has become such a ubiquitous issue that now, it kind of fades into the background. But of course, I sometimes have those moments of, “Oh my god, I’m 31 and I don’t have a house with a golden retriever.” It sometimes feels like that’s how you’re supposed to measure yourself these days. Facebook can bring on those thoughts, when posts from friends reveal big purchases or similar “life steps.” Not long ago, I saw another friend from high school who now has three beautiful children. That’s what she’s been doing for the past twelve years. And when I think about what I’ve done in that period, I vastly appreciate the life that I’ve had.
Do you think much about how you’d like your life to be in the near future?
Bethany: I hope that in five years, I will have found a way to do my own writing and be paid for it, but also to do work in my non-writing time that’s interesting and somewhat creative. I’ve looked at farming jobs, conservation, outreach, and library jobs. Any combination of that would be good for me, and I’d like to see a departure from forcing the traditional economic path on everyone, because I don’t think it works for all types of people. I’d like to see more people making the active choice to live the life that would make them happy. Like…if you’re going to live your life chopping wood for people, go do it. I’m pretty sure that a pile of crap from China – that you earn because you’ve worked hard your whole life and now you get to buy all this stuff – won’t actually make people happy.
Because you touched on it earlier, how does student loan debt factor into your future outlook? By all estimates, the national figures (including my own) have now surpassed credit card debt.
Bethany: It’s been pretty awful, struggling to make payments. On all possible loans, I have the income-based repayment plan, which is incredible, but it’s still really hard to figure out how to move forward with your life when you feel like you’re forking over the largest part of your income to pay for your education. And I do want to pay for my education. But it’s very frustrating to be unable to use the knowledge I retained from college to pay for the experience. Back in 1999, when I was looking at schools, the common logic was if you went to college, you’d get a job that would pay enough to cover your loans within a few years. The economy was great back then. Gas was 98 cents a gallon!
Wow. I feel infantile just hearing that.
Bethany: Something I’ll tell my grandkids – hopefully they’ll ask, “what’s gas?” But my goal, since moving here, to Somerville was to find a job that would keep me from being beholden to my loan officers. As of now, I’m still waitressing for less than 30 hours, and meanwhile, I have a master’s degree and loans of a master’s degree magnitude.
Are a lot of your friends in a similar position?
Bethany: You know, I think for our generation, it’s a lot easier to talk about sex than it is to talk about money. There’s a weird stigma around discussing things like loans. I have a few friends and we talk about how horrible college loans are, but I also remember my first season in the AMC huts, this one time when we were talking about how to best garner tips from the guests. And when one of us suggested hinting that we have college loans to pay – in good humor, of course – someone on the crew went “does anyone actually have college loans?” Only two of us did. And it was an uncomfortable realization.
But are your more privileged friends open to talking about issues like inequality today?
Bethany: I think most of them are aware and extraordinarily empathetic to those who do have loans. I don’t know anyone who didn’t support the Occupy Wall Street movement. But it’s still a heavy weight to carry. I try not to think about it at all times. I mean, I don’t have health insurance; gotta keep the blood pressure at bay! My sisters are in a similar boat, and we talk about this a lot. They’re probably my best support system when frustration sets in.
Everything you’ve touched on constitutes a systemic crisis. How do you think we can mitigate the bad effects of student loan debt and help young people move forward?
Bethany: Well, there’s always the third world debt forgiveness approach, which seems pretty appropriate here. My understanding of how loan companies work is pretty much unchanged from Jimmy Stewart explaining in It’s A Wonderful Life, “Well, your money’s in this house, then this house, and eventually, you get it back.” Maybe my money is paying for great things, and I’m contributing to the betterment of something by repaying my loans. But I don’t know that. I think forgiving debt and making education more affordable would be a better path towards a prosperous economy where people could contribute in more ways than just loan payments. Even a two year post-college grace period would allow young people to get their feet on the ground.
Student debt forgiveness has been brought up, though it’s still embraced by a minority of Americans. Why do you think the idea hasn’t caught fire?
Bethany: First, I definitely don’t want to come across as a whiny 30-something slacker, because I’ve spent almost nine years trying to find ways to get these loans repaid. It feels that the system I paid into is broken, and it requires a major overhaul. But I think a lot of people are still very afraid of being thought of as anything less than a classic “American” who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps when things get tough. Even we’re talking about a systemic breakdown.
People still side with their inner Calvinist, you could say. The hardest way is the only way. No gain, no pain.
Bethany: I think we should start flogging people. Bring that back (laughs).
Put us all in the stocks. Throw rotten vegetables.
Bethany: But in all seriousness, the game that we’re playing with loans has changed drastically. And companies and individuals are still holding themselves to old standards. It’s like watching two people play checkers after the checkerboard has suddenly disappeared. You want to tap them on the shoulder and go, “Um…what the fuck are you doing?”
There’s so much writing about people in our age range today. Do you feel that the struggle you’re describing to me is being told?
Bethany: Sporadically. I appreciated WBUR’s Generation Stuck series. It’s tough to say how I felt about the word “stuck” though. It felt both true and denigrating at once. But in terms of how we define Millennials, I’m on the higher end of that age range. Pretty soon, I won’t be a “young person” anymore, so I want to be sure that I’m at the table when we talk about solutions for those left behind by the economy.
The popular characterization of people in our age range has been quite demoralizing: we’re aimless, lazy, entitled, you name it. How do you identify with the term Millennial?
Bethany: I think those adjectives are used too liberally, but there’s some truth to it. I remember a scene from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. This eighteen year-old girl shows up, trying so hard to hit on this aging rock star, and he just looks at her with absolute disgust – which is awesome. He instantly reads her as this girl who’s been raised to believe that all her gifts to the world are wonderful. As Millennials, I think we are a generation that’s been raised to believe that we’re precious. But I also think people rise to the level of expectation. One could ask, “if we’re lazy, then what do we have to get out of bed for?” I know people who are incredibly hard-working and humble about the work that they do, just as I know others who are slacker assholes.
By experience alone, you seem very prepared for this, but how do you feel about the prediction that most of us Millennials will hold more jobs, live in more places, and experience a lower standard of living than our parents?
Bethany: I think that sounds awesome. As you were saying that, I was trying to count the number of jobs I’ve had. I can’t! I think everything I’ve done has made me a better-rounded person. What transients give up in roots, you gain in a wider community. As they say, borders are invisible, but people are everywhere. And as far as standards of living go, nothing would make me happier than to live in a less consumptive society. If we’re forced to only have what we can afford and need…I honestly think that should have happened 30 years ago.