Being a millennial in today’s America is hard. Not “growing up in Syria” hard, but difficult nonetheless. We have issues our parents never had, and problems our Canadian and European friends never think twice about. Of course every country has it’s own issues, but today I’m going to talk about the USA.
Let’s be real, the student loan bubble in the US is ridiculous. I managed to graduate from George Washington University with minimal loans due to financial aid, a hefty scholarship, multiple smaller scholarships, and help from my parents. If I didn’t have a cushion from my parents and a huge scholarship from GW, I definitely would’ve gone to the University of Washington instead, which is still about $16,000 USD a year in tuition alone.
Currently, I have about $20,000 USD in loans from my Master’s degree, which I obtained at a British University in China. I already wrote at length about how this decision worked out to be significantly cheaper than studying at the University of Washington. So here I am with $20,000 USD in debt, gaining about $1,000 in interest for every year I don’t pay it back. Not exactly an ideal situation for a 24-year-old, but compared to my peers my loans are nothing.
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The Plight of Millennials
While the American economy is doing a bit better, it’s still hard to survive on an entry-level salary, or even obtain an entry-level job. A college degree means as much now as a high school diploma used to, but it’s ridiculously expensive.
These days, to get a job you need to have experience, usually in the form of an unpaid internship. Forget working at a restaurant or coffee shop to pay the bills, now we need to work for free just for the privilege of getting a job that we can use to pay off our student loans.
Thankfully, I was able to get an internship with the Alliance for Global Education that paid me $10/hour, which was actually above DC’s minimum wage at the time; however, this is definitely not the norm. In my opinion, unpaid internships are a huge form of exploitation on my generation. The students who can afford to work for free are able to gain the necessary experience “entry-level jobs” now require, while the students who can’t work for free have lackluster resumes, preventing them from getting jobs to pay off their student loans later on.
What does this mean? Students taking out more loans to work for free so we can get a job that will eventually let us pay off our loans…. Wait, what?!
I think American millennials would laugh at the fact that “entry-level” jobs require years of unpaid experience, if we weren’t all too busy wiping our tears with our student loan checks every month.
….And people wonder why young Americans don’t travel.
American Millennials: I Don’t Want Your Life
I hear the stories from my friends back in America, and to be honest, I’m glad I left. One of my best friends has an “amazing” government job making 60k per year in DC, but ends up saving almost nothing after rent, groceries and subway fares. This is on top of the fact that she works insane overtime. I have friends working soul-sucking cubicle jobs they hate just to pay the bills. I have friends who have been living at home, working at restaurants and coffee shops for the last few years, unable to find a salaried position.
Many of my friends can’t find a good salaried job, and those that can are currently “paying their dues.” I’ve seen smart and talented people stressed beyond belief, cutting coupons, eating Hamburger Helper. I get it. I understand. I’ve seen it first-hand and I don’t want to be a part of it.
Why I Ran Away to China
Every time I go home people ask me when I’m going back to America. People talk about living and working in the USA like it’s some sort of amazing utopia. For many young and talented people with big student loans and little work experience, the American dream just isn’t panning out like we all thought it would.
As a senior in college, I saw this, took a good, hard look at it and ran. I ran, and ran, and ran all the way to China.
Within one month of graduation, I was living on my own, paying my own phone bills, covering my own health insurance, traveling on my own dime. I taught English in Beijing for a month, using the money to cover rent, and took my savings from my paid internship and traveled to Tibet.
I started my job in Ningbo with $50 in my pocket, and through working roughly 30 hours a week with a full-time teaching job and part-time gigs, I ended up saving $3,000 while also traveling all over China to places like Beijing, Shanghai (more than once), Wuxi, Nanjing, Harbin, Xiamen, Guilin, Yangshuo, Zhangjiajie, and the Yandangshan mountains. I also took trips to Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Now with a little experience and a Master’s degree under my belt, I work as a college counselor in Beijing. I have my own private office, working 40 hours a week for roughly $37,000 USD a year (a little more than $30,000 after taxes). I also have a housing stipend of $900 USD a month, 20 vacation days, free health insurance with a very small co-pay, free flights home to America every year, and a free Chinese visa.
Sure, it isn’t my dream job, but through a bit of budgeting, I hope to completely pay off my $20,000 student loans within two years.
What 24-year-old do you know with her own private office, working to save up $20k in two years, taking trips to the Philippines, living in her own apartment in a cosmopolitan city? Not many, I can tell you that.
Living in China isn’t always easy. There’s a price to pay for being able to make this much money. I have to live far away from home. I have to deal with culture shock and living in a new country. Sometimes I get sick of the food (or from the food). Other times I get frustrated with China’s inability to understand that foreigners actually live here and have bank accounts (come on Amazon and Uber, why the hell do you require a Citizen ID to use a Chinese bank card???!!)
But all of the problems are a small price to pay for being able to travel the world, have my own office, eat out at decent restaurants, go to cool bars, have almost free health insurance, and (hopefully) save $20,000 USD in two years.
But for some reason, people still seem to think that my choices are strange. People wonder when I’m going to come home and get a “real job”. Millennials don’t seem to think my choices are a legitimate option for them.
Living Abroad Isn’t For Everyone, But It’s an Option.
Sure, you shouldn’t have to live abroad to pay off your student loans and have a good quality of life. Just like you shouldn’t have to join the military to get an affordable education. Not everyone can (or should) join the military, and not everyone can (or should) work abroad. Maybe you have to take care of a family member, or you have obligations at home. Maybe you want a career that’s not applicable abroad, and you need to “pay your dues” in America now.
But for many average American millennials, moving to Asia is actually a real, and smart option.
Yesterday I read an article by a 25-year-old Yelp employee who complained to the CEO that she couldn’t afford to buy groceries on her small salary. (If you haven’t read it, you should definitely drop what you’re doing and read it now… I’ll wait.)
A part of me definitely agreed with this girl. Balancing your student loans, rent, and groceries on an entry-level salary is rough. I felt for her when she said all she could eat was rice, and that a CVS employee had to give her $6 so she could afford her train to work.
But when I started to read the details, I felt a bit annoyed with this girl. No one is making her live in San Francisco, the most expensive city in America. She has a $1,200/month apartment that’s 40 minutes from work… Why not get two roommates and use the extra money for your food? Now that she’s been fired from her job because of this letter (obviously), she’s asking for strangers to give her donations.
You want to talk about having roommates? I have about $900 a month in free housing, but when my company changed their policy allowing us to retain any unused housing stipend money, I immediately broke the lease on my fancy studio apartment near work and moved into a house 30 minutes away with four roommates. Why? Because I have student loans that need to be paid.
Girl, you are not a refugee. You are not starving. Just by being born in America you are one of the most privileged people in the entire world. Sure, being a millennial sucks sometimes, and I get angry at what my parents’ generation has left us, but you do not need donations from strangers to eat.
Go online and apply for a job teaching in South Korea. Sublet your apartment and get your butt on that free plane ride. You are American. You have a college degree. You’re a native English speaker. What the hell are you doing in this situation?! You are not a tree. You are not stuck anywhere. If you’re going to eat rice every day you might as well do it in China.
People migrate all the time. My grandparents came to the US from Ireland, looking for a better life, now I’m doing the same in China. People from all over the world apply for working holiday visas in Australia to save money. People from Spain and Greece find work in France and Germany. Why is it so weird to think you might be able to do the same?
Stephanie Williams, a 29-year-old former waitress recently wrote a (pretty harsh) response to this girl on Business Insider, explaining how she waited tables and worked at a bar for years to pay off her debt while applying for jobs in screen writing. She made $50-60k a year through hustling and paying her dues, and now has her dream job in NYC.
My friend with the “amazing” job in DC that’s barely paying the bills is now applying for her PhD. Another one of my friends who’s been working at a coffee shop for years finally found the courage to quit and is taking a class online to learn how to code mobile websites.
If you don’t like your life, do something about it.
America’s a mess, but you don’t have to be.
As an extremely liberal person with Northern European-esque political views, I will be the first to tell you we should have a single-payer healthcare system, affordable college tuition, equal pay for equal work, government mandated maternal and paternal leave, affordable childcare, and much more. I don’t believe in unpaid internships, and I think the student loan bubble is going to pop any year now.
As much as I love America, it’s a bit of a mess. As millennials, we should cry out and lobby for change. We should demand our employers treat and pay us fairly. We should be politically active.
While I think our anger against what we’ve been given is justified, whining to your CEO that you can’t afford your outrageous rent because you refuse to find a roommate isn’t helping anyone. Especially not if you lose your job in the process.
Some people might say I’m a bit Anti-American, but I think criticizing the USA makes me extremely patriotic. I only point out America’s flaws because I want to make my country better. That said, I’m not going to stick around and be miserable either. I’ll be politically active from afar, and maybe I’ll come home when America gets its shit together.
Sometimes I just want to shake people. You are not stuck. You do not have to stay in a job you hate. You do not even have to stay in America.
Sure, I’d love to be working as a digital nomad, traveling and working my way around Asia. I’d love to be spending more time on my blog, growing my business. I want to start leading food tours in Beijing and backpacker tours around China. I get so jealous when I meet other European or Australian backpackers my age who merely worked for six months and were able to save for a year-long trip. I might have my own private office, but it doesn’t mean I love working here every day.
But you know what? I am almost glad I have $20,000 in student loans because I’ve learned so much from them. I appreciate my master’s degree because I’m earning it not just with my mind, but also my wallet. I learned to hustle. I appreciate travel so much more now. I know that when I finally get to work for myself, I’ll never take that freedom for granted.
You Have Privilege, Use It.
I’ll end by again repeating that not everyone can and should live abroad. If you have family you need to take care of, or a career path that requires you to gain work experience in the US, living abroad might not be right for you. But that’s a small minority of millennials.
We have an immense privilege. We are Americans. We are native English speakers. We are young and adaptable. We understand technology. We can live almost anywhere in the world and get a nice job.
I am not stuck and neither are you.
What do you think American Millennials: Are you feeling stuck back home? Have you moved abroad for a better life? Do you think I’m full of BS? Let me know!
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