The social justice hot topic of the moment in the United States comes to us straight from the the most hated generation to come of age since the cast members of Reality Bites could afford health insurance. As someone born in the tail end of Gen X, I have to say that I am grateful to Millennials for distracting the Baby Boomers from us, much in the way Ian Malcolm led the T-Rex away from Sam Neil and those kids in the overturned Jeep. I feel for you, Millennials, as most Gen Xers spent their early twenties similarly disparaged by a generation who continues to insist that if they could buy a house with cash at age twenty-four (when the average new home cost roughly $30,000.00), then so too should a Millennial be able to afford a new house in their twenties (despite the current price for a new home resting somewhere around the $200,000.00 mark). As someone whose Boomer in-laws gifted my husband and I with a book titled You’re Broke Because You Want To Be when we’d just lost our house, I keenly understand the frustration felt by a generation being held to wildly outdated standards.
And it’s clearly that frustration that led Talia Jane to write “An Open Letter To My CEO“. In it, Jane describes the extreme poverty she and other employees of Yelp, an internet company that enables anyone with a smartphone to become a pro-am food critic, experience while trying to live in the San Francisco area on a $12/hr salary. The responses to the article are divided into two camps of extreme opposites, with one side viewing Jane as a working class hero exposing the truth about wage inequality, and the other side painting her as a spoiled Millennial brat who doesn’t want to work hard to get ahead in life. Even fellow Millennials have roasted her, like Stephanie Williams, who boasted about her ability to overcome the same circumstances through hard work and commitment that sounds an awful lot like a combination of luck and privilege that Jane doesn’t share.
After seeing people I know, from every age group and walk of life, weigh in on Jane’s piece, I began to wonder if I was the only person standing firmly between those two unforgiving poles. Is it possible to view wage inequality and poverty as serious issues affecting our country, especially our youngest adults, while at the same time finding it difficult to praise Jane or her letter?
When I read Jane’s piece, I was with her on her overall point: if a company chooses to operate their business out of what is known to be the U.S. city with the highest cost of living, it should be obligated to pay its employees a living wage. I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting Jane should simply move to another city. It seems a simple solution, but on an annual salary of $24,000.00, the costs of moving would likely set her back even further. I’ve seen plenty of accusations of entitlement on Jane’s part–”just because she wants to live in the Bay area doesn’t mean she just gets to if she can’t afford it!”–but very few calling out Yelp. If we’re talking about entitlement here, doesn’t it stand to reason that the company that showed a $32.9 million net income last year should be the ones doing the moving? Is it not a gross display of blatant entitlement for a company to ask its employees to simply be grateful for their meager paychecks so the company can occupy desirable real estate? Since it began, Yelp has only shown a profit in 2014. Their revenue was down in 2015. If it’s too expensive for Talia Jane to live in San Fransisco, then can’t the same be said of Yelp?
On the other hand, the job Jane had with Yelp, while not paying a living wage, included benefits that many post-college jobs don’t. For example, the free food that starving employees ravaged. Jane’s complaint about these snacks not being stocked on the weekends likely seemed the pinnacle of entitlement to readers who not only don’t have break room food to scavenge, but who also watch their children go hungry on weekends because the only meals they get are their free–and meager–school lunches. I’m reminded of the woman I worked with at McDonald’s, who would take her free break meal home in her purse and divide up the medium fries and six piece nuggets between her two kids, while she went hungry. She was eventually fired when she was caught eating breakfast food she’d been asked to throw in the trash during changeover. Almost every working- and middle-class American has a story like that to share, either of their own experiences or someone else’s, so it’s no wonder that Jane’s complaint of not receiving the free food due to her on weekends was met with an extreme response.
Her Instagram account received similar criticism. Since January, Jane has posted photos of homemade cupcakes garnished with fresh mint and sliced fruit, expensive bourbon, and a steak dinner she made for a friend. The backlash against her was such that her Instagram account is now private, but someone was so irritated by the images that directly contradicted her claims of hunger pains and an all-rice diet that they now host screenshots of images taken from her account on thatsalotofrice.com, the domain name itself a withering condemnation. Jane has since explained that many of the meals pictured on her Instagram were given to her, and that she only posts positive images to her account. Who among us can say that we’ve never used social media to make our lives seem more pulled together or glamorous? If that’s one of Jane’s sins, it’s minor at best.
I bristle at the assertion that people living in poverty don’t deserve “luxury” items. Only five years ago I sat in the parking lot of a pawn shop, sobbing, because my engagement ring would fetch only $35.00, but it was a $35.00 that could feed us for several days. While I ultimately held on to the ring–damn my sentimentality–I came home to find that a politically conservative relative had made a passive aggressive Facebook post, cryptically alluding to this family she happened to know who claimed to need food stamps, but whose children had electronic devices. The devices she referred to had been given to my children by my mother-in-law for Christmas; that we couldn’t find it in our hearts to snatch them away from our kids so as to be poor correctly was considered a moral failing.
I don’t fault Jane for keeping her expensive bourbon; I do fault her for not making her Instagram private before she started this internet firestorm. By not doing so, the self-righteous arbiters of what strangers should be spending money on have further ammunition with which to discredit all poor people everywhere. The people who fully believe that poverty is simply living it up without obligation. The senators who insist that welfare and food stamp recipients should only eat rice and beans, rather than spend the tax payers’ hard earned dollars on steak and lobster (while cleverly ignoring the fact that, as government employees, the tax payers’ hard earned dollars are paying for every politician’s steak and lobster). Jane’s intent may have been to expose the reality of poverty, but she greatly exaggerated her circumstances by claiming that she’s only eating rice and barely staving off hunger pains. “Most of the food I eat is free from the break room or occasionally gifted to me by friends who can actually afford groceries,” would have been honest and less damaging to the coworkers who struggle right along with her. One wonders what will become of those break room goodies now that she’s revealed that employees routinely take them home at the end of the day.
Others have criticized Jane for her reckless actions, which resulted in her termination. Numerous unemployed people have criticized her for throwing away a job that “anyone” would be happy to have. Obviously, Jane was not happy to have the job; she had to know that the outcome of not only blasting the company CEO on Twitter (going so far as to suggest he fire her), but writing a scathing viral blog post, would end with unemployment. That’s her choice to make, but it is an objectively foolish one. If Jane was starving on $12/hr, how will that situation improve on $0/hr? She announced the news of her firing with handy links to places where people could send her money. It’s a shrewd choice; she’s already made more money by capitalizing on her viral fame than she would have in a month at Yelp, and this experience may lead to job offers that suit her better. But it’s hard to fault people for being cynical when one of Jane’s infamous Instagram photos is a text in which she bemoans the fact that she doesn’t have a big enough internet presence to induce people to send her money for nothing. While money-for-nothing is the dream of every American, it’s also the allegation made by those aforementioned enemies of the poor, who will now seize on Jane’s words as “proof” that all Millennials and all impoverished people are secretly lazy and horrible, and who could fix their circumstances entirely with bootstraps and elbow grease.
Further fueling that cynicism is Jane’s complaint at learning she would have to wait a year before being considered for a promotion. Of course that’s going to be met with scoffs and eye rolls. But at the same time, attacking Jane for getting a “useless” degree should be met with equal measures of disdain. Outside of STEM and medical fields, not many people find themselves in jobs directly relating to their college majors. Working at Yelp was probably not covered in Jane’s studies, but she landed the position, anyway. She’s obviously capable of finding employment despite the egregious burden of her “useless” college experience.
Does Jane’s original letter raise salient points about wage inequality in the United States? Absolutely. Does she still come off as entitled and dishonest about her circumstances? I think she does. Are all Millennials likewise exaggerating and embellishing valid complaints for dramatic effect? No, but if you’re one of the Gen Xers or Baby Boomers who eat up every click-bait article confirming that wrong opinion for you, your mind is already made up on that point. But can we move past the ideology that if a person is right about something, it automatically means their motives were righteous? Or that a person has to have righteous motives to point out what should be obvious in the first place?
Criticism of Jane’s piece shouldn’t be seen as an automatic denial of the serious economic failings in our country. But it’s entirely possible to point out the areas where Jane is right without making excuses to defend all the places where she’s wrong. Am I saying that Jane has no right to complain about her circumstances when there are other people in worse situations? No, that’s a silly belief for people to ascribe to, as there will always be someone who has it worse, and who may not be in a position to speak out against the inequalities that are holding them down. What I’m saying is that while it may seem that Jane has made heroic overtures in the battle for socioeconomic equality, uncritical defense of her open letter only advances Jane and destroys the credibility of other Millennials struggling to clear the poverty line. “See?” deniers will say. “None of them are really poor. And they clearly don’t need food stamps or student loan forgiveness when they can just make a GoFundMe.”
Millennials are no better or worse than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. Just like Monica Lewinsky is not every Gen Xer and Jeffrey Skilling is not every Baby Boomer, Talia Jane is not every Millennial. She’s also not the poster child for every impoverished worker in America, nor should she be. Until we’re willing to have nuanced conversations about the realities of poverty and the people affected by it, we won’t see any headway in correcting our attitudes toward it. That means that we must accept that if poor people can be as hardworking and honest as a rich person, then they can also be just as opportunistic and bend the truth as much as a rich person. Either way, no one deserves to struggle the way so many struggle in a nation that prides itself on its economic superiority. Not Talia Jane, and not anyone else, regardless of which generation they were born into.