Back in high school, I had a friend — let’s call her Maribel — who was determined to be more successful than her poor, immigrant family. She set about doing so in all the traditional ways: she tested into magnet schools, did every extra credit assignment, became captain of the swim team and an editor on the school newspaper. Eventually, Maribel got into Yale. Upon graduating in 2007, she accepted a job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs.
This move didn’t surprise me. It made perfect sense that someone who grew up low-income would be drawn to the classic job we’d always been told would make us rich.
A year or two earlier, Chelsea Clinton made a similar career move — she’d accepted a job as an analyst at a hedge fund. That was far more perplexing. Maribel was focused on making money and moving up the ladder, but Chelsea could have her dream job. This woman’s pedigree could land her anywhere, I remember thinking. And she chooses this?
Eventually, Chelsea came to the same conclusion. In a Fast Company profile last month, she likened her job-hopping to her millennial identity, explaining her exit from Avenue Capital Group thusly: “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t.” She realized that making bank “wasn’t the metric of success that I wanted in my life.”
The New York Daily News recently folded those comments into a building narrative of Tone-Deaf Hillary, after Chelsea’s mother recently complained of being “dead-broke” after the Clinton presidency and insisting her family wasn’t “truly well off.” But Chelsea’s comments reveal a far more honest self-reflection: that with her million-dollar family and hedge-fund husband, she didn’t have to think about money. In a crucial way, she’s different than Maribel and the vast majority of millennials, half of whom are unemployed or underemployed. Chelsea’s comments are actually less of her generation than her parents’. A good chunk of the Boomer generation, who grew up in an era of abundance, also had the privilege not to worry much about money. Instead, they turned their attentions to other “metrics of success” besides material gain, like social revolutions or a quest for authenticity.
Most Millennials, on the other hand, still obsess over dollar signs. As New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey deftly pointed out last year, our downwardly mobile generation is “the kind of hungry that cannot stop thinking about food” — obsessed with money, in other words, because we don’t have any.
Of course, Chelsea’s job offer came right before 2008’s meltdown, when banks suddenly seemed like the enemy to a generation drowning in debt and dreaming about elusive mortgages. Chelsea’s disillusionment with money-making does correlate with study after study showing that post-recession, millennials want jobs that are “meaningful” rather than lucrative. Some would call that proof of our compassion and engagement; I would call it a coping mechanism. Many of us are well aware that job security and pensions are things of the past. We know that aside from a few Silicon Valley-bound college grads (or willful dropouts), most of us won’t do better than our parents. So we seek validation and happiness in other ways.
Still, research shows that many millennials, especially low-income ones, still want the proverbial White Picket Fence: a good job, a house, a family. One 2012 survey found that being wealthy is still “very important” to 75 percent of us; we’ve noticed that in a society with a cavernous wealth gap, you increasingly have to be rich if you don’t want to be poor. No wonder seven out of 10 of us want to be entrepreneurs —it seems like the only way to make it now that the traditional safety nets are eroding. Finding “meaningful” work is still a privilege of the wealthy, or at least a person who knows what it’s like to be raised in relative comfort.
The holy grail, to be sure, is to have it both ways. Maribel left Goldman Sachs after only a year, but not to join the Peace Corps or pursue her silk-screening passion; instead, she scored a medical degree from another Ivy League school. Chelsea Clinton’s new gig in the family business — she’s now vice chair of the Clinton Foundation — combines philanthropy with mahogany in Midtown. She knows her money isn’t the metric of her success, because it never had to be. The rest of us are still figuring out whether we agree.