Jewish Millennials: The Lost Generation

By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon

I remember my Grandmother Jill telling me how hard it was for her and her husband, Burt, to buy their first home. My grandparents eloped in their early twenties, forgoing a party. They lived in the garage of my great-grandparents house.

“Your Grandfather Burt was handy,” my bubbe told me, “He made that garage feel like a home. But thank God we moved out two years later. Living with in-laws is not ideal.”

We both laughed, and then sighed. I realized that besides the experience of living at home as an adult, we didn’t share too much else in common. In that time period, most families could get by with one salary per household - it wasn’t until the late 1970s or 80s that two salary incomes became the norm.

Some grandparents tell me that back then, they could afford to attend college and pay rent while working a part-time job. To think it was common to go through college without a loan, or possible to buy a home without a credit score befuddles me. “It was a different world,” my grandma said succinctly “I could get an ice cream soda for a nickel.” We both laughed, and then I said, “It must have been a silver nickel!”

Millennials, who entered the workforce by and large in 2007, inherited the largest economic recession that our country has ever known. The effects of that recession are still unresolved today - extenuated by coronavirus. For the last fifty years, rates of inflation have vastly exceeded the rate of wage growth, and even savers who have seen their bank accounts grow nominally are perplexed as to why their money buys less.

This impact has kept older people in the workforce for longer, forestalling retirement plans, and challenging young people to take unpaid internships, or extra degrees to compete in the marketplace. Inflation, often known as the silent tax, has potent social costs to it. These social costs manifest in generational warfare that I see on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and yes, even synagogue boards.

To state that today’s cohort of young adults is a lost generation is an understatement. As we watch our childhood hangouts (like malls) foreclose from rolling bankruptcies and as we see opioid addiction rates most heavily impact the 25-54 year age-group, I have to pause for a moment of reflection. As of July 2020, 52% of millennials were living in their parents' home, up from 47% in February 2020, according to the Pew analysis of Census Bureau data. That surpasses the previous high hit in 1940, when 48% of young adults lived with their parents - including my Grandparents Jill and Burt.

Summarized into social perception: If a group of people grew up with an unrealistic goal of “what is economically possible” and then fall vastly beneath it, subsequent depression will naturally ensue.

In that light, younger people must reprioritize their values to have a positive self-worth, and that usually means embracing the unconventional. Our Jewish community should be as supportive as we can in this endeavor.

One of the social costs of this phenomenon manifests itself in appropriate decorum. Communication can sometimes feel like you are walking on eggshells. An example: I cannot talk with many of my friends about how lucky I am to have a job I love. To get to serve the Jewish community with compassion during this difficult time fills me with pride and gratitude. I wake up and count my blessings.

One year at Jewish summer camp, I remember trying to communicate this accomplishment to other staffers. Often these counselors clam up and say passively, “that’s great.” I noticed these counselors were in college or just past college age, and they had a pithy description of their experience. “I’m like a lot of people here,” a talented young lady told me once, “I work the 10 for 2.” Awkward silence… “I just quit my last job to be here at camp. I don’t know what I’ll do when summer’s over.”

The “10 for 2” is where a worker takes ten months on a job they severely dislike (but pays the bills) to work two months at a summer camp (or seasonal job) where they could live in “wanderlust.”

Wanderlust is the concept of chasing experiences over stability. It’s why young people flock to work at seasonal farms across the country, called “WWOOFing.” It's why long distance hiking trails are meccas for young ambitious people with a couple hundred dollars and time to spare. It’s why the YouTube category “Van Life,” has millions of hits. It’s why a Wifi signal and a Spartan camper can inspire millions of young folks to redefine the American dream. The critically acclaimed movie Nomadland recently captured this multigenerational impact of living through The Great Recession. It’s the meager goalpost of ambitious and adventurous young people - the same people to whom owning a house is nearly impossible.

Once upon a time, the American Dream stood atop the tripod of the car, the home, and the job. Manufacturing was King. Suburbs, newly built, allowed for an exodus of Jews away from the cities. These homes appreciated in value and provided a good life for their denizens.

But now the infrastructure has changed. Synagogues and JCCs have felt the brunt of these economic shifts, trying as best they can to offset revenue declines with fundraising campaigns. Young people, now the silent demographic majority, have either moved to rented apartments in the cities or work from homes they do not fully own. My heart goes out to these talented and charismatic young Jews who, in almost any other time period, would have had the stability of gainful employment, with a family on the way, and the ability to take a vacation every once in a while.

I long for the return of the American Dream and all its promises. I long for the easy laughter of friends who have enough sustenance to see their modest dreams accomplished.

No one generation has it the hardest. We all take turns passing the torch of tradition, l’dor v’dor. I can only hope this lost generation of millennials finds enough confidence to enter the houses of worship and Jewish homes we make accessible to them. The lack of this age cohort in our synagogue life has dire consequences. I know firsthand the hurting, to be in your 20s without a stable future, and I know G-d, prayer, and community can help provide healing and opportunities for confidence.

Be gentle with yourself and others, and let’s share in this religion together. No matter the age of the community member, they have a valuable perspective and deserve to be seen. Even if they are not physically there.