Generation Sell Out
For Gen X, cashing in was a sin. But for millennials, what choice do we really have?
“And they wonder why those of us in our twenties refuse to work an 80-hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMWs...Why we aren't interested in the counterculture that they invented...as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes.
But the question remains: what are we going to do now?”
In the iconic opening scene of Reality Bites, Winona Ryder makes an impassioned speech about just how screwed her generation of college grads is. Things suck, and the movie makes it the task of her and her friends to resist the commercial forces waiting at the wings to profit from their work.
Reality Bites is both a time capsule and a generational touchstone, a portrayal of the defiance of certain Gen Xers resistance to professionalism. As I understood it then, selling out was some kind of crime — not the illegal kind of crime, but a crime against yourself. It would slowly but surely corrupt your work and your spirit and soul, and only when you’re spitting out disingenuous, phony work will you realize how you robbed yourself of your own talent. And if you didn’t see the problem with selling out to the man, your flannel-wearing peers would definitely keep you in check. The movie pitted trust and artistic integrity in the face of corporate interests. Sure, it sometimes meant you were broke, but you were demonstrating the most valuable trait of all: keeping it very real.
The reason these characters seem ridiculous 24 years later is because we now know that the 1990s was one of the happiest and most economically prosperous decades America has seen: Household income was going up, poverty and crime were decreasing, real estate prices hadn’t yet rocketed, and a recession wouldn’t land for another 10 years. (In 1998 and 1999, there was a federal government surplus, which means extra money, something millennials have never experienced in their adult years.)
The characters in Reality Bites, who don’t want to accept their parent’s hand-me-down BMW because of what it symbolizes or dream about selling a documentary to a giant media company, now seem like complete aliens who don’t want to one day live without roommates. They weren’t even hiding their rich parents from view, even while nobly resisting their help. Who were these privileged hipsters? Forget adulting. These people would never become adults.
The romanticism of that time and its zeitgeist has worn off in a time of extreme wealth inequality, with millennials struggling to pay for the things their parents had even while they work full time with side hustles. Living the unpaid “authentic” life were the values of a different time. And this is what most millennials have to say about it: Not in this economy.
This economy is weird, distorted, and extreme. Millions of young people who graduated in the throes of the Great Recession are saddled by debt (collectively America now owes $1.5 trillion in student debt) and stagnating wages (growing at a measly 2.5% a year at the lowest unemployment rate in a decade, it’s not catching up to inflation). This is all while fed a diet of “inspirational” stories of entrepreneurship — i.e. lucrative careers forged from “influencing” on Instagram feeds and flush unicorn startups of electric scooters to juice packs raking in millions in venture capital funds. They call us the brokest generation, and yet we’re ever so optimistic in these dark economic times that 53% of us expect we’ll become millionaires. The rising costs of education, healthcare, and rent are eating into our monthly paychecks — all making it hard for middle class millennials to achieve the kind of financial stability our predecessors expected as long as they sold out to the man. Those boring, but steadily paying 9-to-5 cubicle jobs with benefits that the Gen Xers detested are disappearing, replaced by a gig economy and permanent freelance jobs that offers freedom but irregular hours, instability, and no benefits.
These dichotomies are at the heart of some very big problems, not least of which is an eroding middle class in a booming economy where all the wealth sits at the top with some vague promise that somehow it’s going to trickle down if we just stopped taxing rich people and corporations so much. This hollowing of the middle creates a strange kind of pressure: if only you can figure out what it is you’ve got to sell so you don’t end up at the bottom, and once you do — cash in. That divide has brought with it the birth of a new ethos: Get that money. That sch’money. Get those #lifestylegoals. Monetize everything.
Millennials are all about hustling. In the meantime, the glorification of the slacker died. To be a slacker millennial is to be a loser. A non-starter. Not getting that money. Not doing you. Being unemployed isn’t glamorous if you’ve experienced it, and that was the case in 2008 for too many people.
There’s been a change on the other side too though: “The man” who Gen Xers fought against has evolved, too.
Selling out has gotten friendlier, with companies (some of which founded by 20 somethings, who the man now works for) wholeheartedly saying: We can’t wait to hire that local artist nobody has heard of to do a mural or installation. (Supporting the local art scene has become synonymous with “Don’t worry, we’re not the bad kind of gentrifiers!”). Corporations decided it was time for a new formula: Buy in early instead of asking people who’ve made it to sell out. (It’s cheaper and “more authentic.”) Show your loyalty to the artist, then ask them to show loyalty to you in return. Find the nobody that has a cult following, not the somebody who has their own brand already. Then give them equity instead of money, and if you’re lucky, you can be like David Choe and make $200 million for an early graffiti mural in Facebook’s office.
Top tier companies have been struggling to recruit millennials, confused by what they’re looking for beyond money. They need talented white collar workers, so they adapt by trying to make a more “meaningful” company and environment for millennials to work in. To show that they care about you, companies became locked in a perks arms race to take care of all your needs: they’re offering to do your laundry, help pay your student loans, give new parents a year of maternity leave, even buy insurance for your pets. Increasingly, companies are tailoring their culture to millennials, because they believe it’ll attract talent. This is what you get if you can get to the top: You don’t have to follow the man’s rules, he’s trying to play by yours so you don’t leave for his competitor. Selling out looks different, and maybe it feels different too.
It’s undeniable that paired with the acceptance of selling out is a new pride in being financially independent.
“If someone told me while I was in college that I could be making $60-80,000 goofing around in a really pretty office, having fun and coming up with great ideas — I can't imagine saying no to that. And that's partly because financial independence is so important to me: I don't have a trust fund, I don't rely on anyone, making my own money is what I think makes me me. I think that's more common in women of our generation,” said Sally Franson, the author of A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, a novel about the perils and perks of that.
The undercurrent of financial responsibility is both pragmatic and a value millennials celebrate. We don’t want to rely on our parents or stay on the family cell phone plan and use our brother-in-law’s Netflix password forever. It’s precisely because we’ve seen such little fruit from our labor that the desire for a better safety net has emerged in calls for student loan forgiveness and universal basic income.
While we wait for these new policies, we have taken it upon ourselves to do anything necessary so we don’t wind up poor and with no savings, and maybe go on vacation without amassing credit card debt; or buy a house and have a family. On social media, we readily celebrate those who climb out of 6 figures of debt or manage to scrap together a down payment through sheer grit and extreme saving. The rapper Dee-1 celebrated the advance for his record deal by first paying off his student loans, then recording a song that could only exist post-recession: “I finish paying Sallie Mae back! Mae back!” he repeats in the chorus, as Dee pumps his fists into the air with a look of absolute joy.
The one problem here is perhaps a lack of awareness that there’s a problem in always playing to market forces: Growing up with shows like American Idol, millennials have been taught from a young age what it means to conform to mass appeal. As Douglas Rushkoff found in his documentary, Generation Like, many of the millennials he interviewed had no concept of what selling out even was. And herein lies the debate for Gen Z: How can you sell out if you don’t know what it is or why it’s bad?
For Gen X and older millennials pondering why selling out is now acceptable (or even, cool), the answers are everywhere. It’s not just the economy we live in, it’s the fact that the man sometimes works for millennials now (hello, all you tech unicorn founders).
The critics of selling out have largely disappeared, maybe because no one dares to criticize a generation so sold out by the economy and capitalism. But a lot of other things have changed too: It’s hard to stay underground in the internet age. Our everyday lives are becoming increasingly commercialized, our attention and private data sold for ad dollars. Our favorite coffee brands eventually become part of some other giant coffee brand. Some have even argued: Selling out might have saved the things we love.
The thing is, selling out has no guarantees. It should mean a prosperous life where you don’t have to change jobs every few years to get a decent raise, and don’t have to worry about ageism and being out of a job because you’ve hit middle age, and it sure doesn’t mean the financial security selling out should promise. But when selling out doesn’t seem like a choice, why not think of it as cool? Is that delusional? Maybe. When you think about what selling out gets you, there’s a reason you’re getting the money: It’s a job.