Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy and the Church.

One of the first things I noticed when I met my husband was his kindness. He can have a good laugh just as much as the next guy, but he never does it at anyone else’s expense. Sensitive girl that I am, I was immediately drawn to that quality. I felt safe. I trusted him.

This same sensitivity to others’ feelings is what makes him such a great musician and songwriter. He’s attuned to beauty and art. He tells me he’s not articulate about his feelings, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He sings it.

But those same qualities that inform and inspire his talent as a musician are the things that keep him from thriving in his job as a security officer. It’s just not the work he’s cut out for. He’d rather use the talents God has given him to work as a full-time musician. And yet, for the past six years since he graduated college, he’s pretty much worked any job he can so that we can make ends’ meet, even the ones he hates. When we first got married, we held seven part time jobs between the two of us. From August to March of the past year, he worked as a security guard part time, taught guitar lessons, and led worship at our church. Today, he works full time as a security guard and teaches guitar lessons after his shift ends. He does odd jobs to make a little extra cash. He knows he has to get creative about earning an income as a musician. He’s no stranger to working hard.

But I’ve lost count of how many times our “loved ones” have made that implication whenever Matt talks about work. He’s been told everything from “you’re lazy and entitled and selfish” to “your music is just a hobby, now go out and get a real job” to “suck it up and stop being a pussy about your work ethic.” (Yes. Someone actually said that.)

Some men look at him and see his traits of kindness and creativity as weakness. But I look at him and see strength.

The narrative that my husband is lazy because he pursues a different kind of work than his father, a construction foreman, is the same one that the rest of my generation is being told when we talk about our desires to thrive in our work and pursue fulfilling careers.

You’re entitled” has become a straw man argument for why a large percentage of millennials  are struggling in the job market.

But is it really the job market we can’t hack? Or is it the 9-to-5/mortgage for a house in the ’burbs/2.5 kids + Fluffy the Dog lifestyle that is unrealistic? (The very same lifestyle in which even our parents are getting taxed out of affording?)

If the rest of our generation is anything like Matt and I, they’ve been working their asses off in crappy, unfulfilling jobs for close to a decade in a broken economy, and it has come down to two choices : surviving or thriving. Either we work the job we’re not fulfilled in and weren’t cut out for so that we can fit the lifestyle, or we adjust the lifestyle to thrive in the career to which we were called. And it is almost inevitable that changing our lifestyle means moving. To somewhere less costly, to a community less bent on pressuring people into living a certain way.

The job market hears us expressing a desire to work fulfilling jobs and pay our bills, and responds by telling us we have a false sense of entitlement. But I listen to it and hear my generation saying that they want to create a system in which classism is the system that gets broken so that the economy can thrive for everyone equally.

When Rachel Held Evans posted her article for CNN a few weeks ago “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” social media and the blogosphere erupted with reactions, and reactions to those reactions. On and on it went, while I watched quietly as a familiar pattern emerged.

The same people looking for more fulfilling jobs in a broken economy are the same people looking for more fulfilling faith communities in an abusive and apathetic church culture.

And as younger generations expressed disillusionment with the system in which they’re expected to function, older generations decried their laziness and entitlement. The straw man argument returns.

Indeed, my discussions with my husband about finding more fulfilling work and a less expensive place to live feels eerily similar to the discussions we had when we were desperate to find a healthy faith community. We found ourselves in church after church where we were expected to function within the system without asking too many questions or seeking too many changes. We’re asking ourselves the same question, “Is it time to move on?”

Millennials see these abusive power structures and harmful theologies and say, “This system is broken and unless it changes, I can’t thrive here,” but their concern is met  with shaming and silencing tactics. We’re being told to “suck it up” and “work harder” and “stop acting like a bunch of pussies” and “in a few years you’ll realize that this is where you belong,” and “I don’t have a problem with it; why should you? This is just how things are.”

If the parallel between an economy suffering in the hands of the corrupt and a Church suffering in the hands of the abusive makes you uncomfortable, GOOD. It makes us uncomfortable, too.

Older generations of believers look at millennials’ desire to engage culture as catering to secularism and weakness toward sin. But I look at it and see a desire to embrace the marginalized and oppressed.

Let’s get real. It isn’t the millennials’ attitude that broke the economy. It isn’t the millennials’ mass exodus that is breaking their churches. The cracks in the system originated much earlier than that.

The cycle of shame that perpetuates hurtful comments about my husband’s manhood and work ethic is the very same one that oppresses our economy and sends masses of people heading for the church exits. There are huge, ugly parallels between “man-fail” shame and the “laziness” and “entitlement” shame that older generations are heaping on younger ones in a broken economy and the way that churches shame their fleeing congregants. It’s called patriarchy, and it functions for no one, not even the men.

It isn’t how we’re meant to live. It’s not how we’re called to thrive.

Yet at the same time, this discussion is not about pointing fingers and blaming the older generations for corruption and abuse, either. Are these the same struggles that generations before us experienced? Absolutely. Will we deal with it the same way as they did, too? Definitely not. Every generation is different. Even amongst members of our own generation, it will be as varied as unique as we are.

We have to get creative about all of it – about the ways that we earn our living and the ways that we thrive in the workplace and the ways we experience God and the ways we engage our culture.

Some of us will need to go off into the wild in order to better hear the voice of our Shepherd. Some of us will stay and tend His sheep. Some of us will keep watch for wolves. Some of us will tell stories and sing songs of the peaks and valleys of this faith and this time. Let us remember that no matter what each of us choose, all of us belong to the flock, and that the Shepherd doesn’t say to His sheep, “Suck it up.” A healthy community doesn’t shame its people into functioning within the established order when it fails to keep everyone safe.

We need to take an honest look at our strengths and our weaknesses – double-edged swords that they are – and learn to wield them well. I have hope that this is possible.

Some people look at all of this, the broken economy and dying churches, and see the end of everything. But I look at it and see a new beginning.

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  • http://www.stuffaudreysays.com/ Audrey the Turtle

    YES.

  • Whitney

    Can I just say, “Hallelujah!” to the part about being disgusted with the way people treat your husband’s dreams. I don’t know how many times people have treated Jon the exact same way. I so admire his (and Matt’s) courage to keep pursuing his calling. Our society wants them to fit into the same little boring box and live the same life as everyone else. That’s just not who they are. Our world is suffocating their creative genius when we should be celebrating it! So I hear ya, girl! And Matt: don’t ever ever give up! This world needs your voice!

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks for commenting, cuzzy! So thankful to have someone to relate to and empathize with about this. Same to you and Jon – don’t give into the pressure to do things the way it’s always been done. There are so many different kinds of hard work, but the most important thing we can do is honor the talents and gifts we’ve been given. If we’re not doing that, it’s all rather pointless.

  • Camp Whisperer

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response to issues within the church and introducing the question of whether we should even be striving after the same idea of ‘success’ previous generations held. This can be a powerful new beginning, thank you for stating that so eloquently.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading!

  • http://www.mrthomasandme.com/ Amber Thomas

    Amen! Amen and amen! Our generation was taught that Christ’s gospel is one of forgiveness when, in fact, it’s one of love. We aren’t a generation wishing to fall into the confines of those that came before us, and, while we haven’t got it all figured out, we DO know what we want and that, right now, we don’t have access to it. Because it’s not yet here, we’ve banned together to create a new look for our economy, our country, and our churches -a new look that isn’t so much about us being entitled, but us being tired of how things are.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, Amber! Great thoughts here. While it frustrates me that this decade has been so hard on our generation, I think the struggle to create meaningful work opportunities and to create safe faith communities is a valuable one, and that it’s necessary for progress. I have faith that our generation, imperfect though we are, will do important things.

  • Gary Runn

    Bethany, I so appreciate your articulation of what you have been through and your diagnosis of your experience. Yet, I am not quite sure why you laid it at the feet of “patriarchy.” I am assuming that is the summation of your husband’s experience in light of his father and his expectations–and some other men. It feels simplistic to place all of the abuse and shame under this label. I would encourage you to delve into this deeper to reach a more satisfying answer that will speak to an even broader audience. You are on to something, but I don’t think your bold print problem identifier is fully thought out. You are a good writer and I am passing on your post to my friends-but think more deeply and get beyond easy Christian cultural labels. Thanks for your authenticity in sharing this painful season.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Hi Gary,

      Thank you so much for reading and for passing my post on to your friends, and thanks for being willing to dialogue about this. I do just want to clarify that even though I compared/contrasted my husband to my father-in-law, that was not to say that my father-in-law is inflicting hurtful comments. We’re on good terms. It’s when other people look at Matt and his father that the two get compared, as if Matt falls short of the example Will has set. And also, I deeply respect people like my father-in-law for the work they do. I’m not saying Matt’s version of working hard is better – just that everyone should be allowed to pursue their passions and talents without judgment.

      To address your questions about patriarchy … Patriarchy is the system within which all of society operates. It’s a power structure for our government, for our churches, for our economy. Men, and to be more specific, white, straight men, have the upper hand in all of it. That’s how it works, and that is also the problem of it, because it keeps power in the hands of the powerful by establishing a set of ideals that everyone else needs to conform to. The ideals for men are brute strength, total authority within marriage and family relationships, breadwinner status, etc. Anyone that doesn’t totally conform to that ideal is shamed into submitting to it, much like my husband’s experiences. That’s on a micro scale. On a macro scale, everyone else is expected to conform to this ideal and things like government and church are constructed the same way. When we don’t fit the straight, white male ideal for whom patriarchy exists to benefit, we find ourselves struggling on the bottom rungs to survive – making far less money, being silenced for our opinions about change – because if those who benefit from patriarchy were to listen and make changes, then they would give up their power. It would knock them down a few rungs. They’d have to earn less money to accommodate others who need more of it, they’d have to share authority with people who stray from the ideal.

      I find it interesting that you call my accusations of patriarchy a Christian cultural label, because in my personal experience, its Christians that reject this idea the most. At least in western, American, white Christianity, patriarchy thrives because it keeps women from leading, because it tells people on the bottom rungs of society that they have to clean up their act first before they can receive grace. The doors of the church keep those who fit the patriarchal ideals in, and those who do not, out. The economy is the same way. Have you watched C-Span? Have you ever looked inside Forbes Magazine? You can practically count on one hand the number of females and/or people of color.

      So to me, patriarchy isn’t the thing that’s up for debate. And the fact that church power structures mirror economic and government structures isn’t really either. Call it simplistic reason, but it’s just the way the world works. At least right now. We’re enslaved to an ideal … an ideal that not even Jesus fit.

  • Melanie

    Thanks for sharing your (and your husband’s) story–and to Emily Maynard for Tweeting about your article! As someone who is part of the creative class, an English major no less, I can empathize with the crappy, patronizing advice people give those who don’t have a “real” job. And now, as an English professor, I tell my students to pursue their passion and not to worry about a career, esp. not in their twenties. There’s a lifetime for that.

    What makes me uncomfortable about these conversations, though, is the way they make generalizations about generations–about the millennials and their presumed entitlement, but also about older generations. Perhaps I’m feeling rather crotchety because I’m becoming solidly middle age, but I don’t feel like I fit the profile of the many “millennial and the church” articles that have followed Evans’s. I see the church as broken, and I have been broken from it. I feel marginalized as a woman, an introvert, a cynic. I long for authentic connections with others, and work for social justice. Many people my age, and older, also feel this same passion for a different understanding of church, of the economy, of life.

    Can we get past the point where we say ALL millennials are this way, and ALL older folks are that way? I think this will make room for a healthier conversation, one that allows us to truly speak into each other’s lives.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      You make a really great point, Melanie. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here and dialoguing with me. My apologies if my piece made you feel roped in with the crotchety ones. ;)

      I agree with you that the generalizations between generations can be harmful. It’s an age-old problem, though, that if a majority of people think a certain way about an issue and vocalize it to their counterparts, that the minority who feel entirely different will get lost in the shuffle of the debate. I try not to lose perspective in all of this, especially considering older people in my life (even if just by a few years) I know who support me and my husband and/or feel the same way about the economy and church culture that we do, but I can see how this piece wasn’t strong in that department and it’s giving me a lot to think about. Thanks again for piping up and saying you feel differently than your peers. That’s what makes the generalizations harder to maintain, right?

      • melaniespringermock

        Thanks for your gracious reply. I actually think your piece avoided generalizations about older folks in way some of the others on “millennials in the church” have not. Part of my own problem in reacting to generalizations is that I am resisting my own advancing-to-middle age, in part because I don’t feel as old as I am, and in part because I never imagined I’d be–that seemed so old. I want to hang out with the millennials, which fortunately I get to do as a college teacher. :)

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  • JBReiter

    Yes, a thousand times yes. Thank you. I’m so sick of hearing the good-old-days baloney about “why don’t kids today stay put and be loyal to their parish”. Most people in this economy can’t afford to stay put. And a relationship based on shame and silencing is abuse, not Christian love.