Twelve 20-somethings chronicle their lives for WBUR. Learn more.
This is a special election-week essay for Generation Stuck. Emilie Haertsch is 26 years old and voting for President Obama. Read also: Samantha Bilotta is 23 years old and voting for Mitt Romney.
One of the main questions the Mitt Romney campaign has been asking of voters is whether or not they are better off today than they were four years ago. Romney asks this question because he assumes that the answer for most people — especially my generation of Millennials — is no.
Well, guess what? I actually am better off. And I am not some venture capitalist from a blue-blood family. I am a 26-year-old woman with a middle-class background working as a writer and editor.
I graduated from college in Philadelphia in May 2008, just a few months before the recession hit. But the recession did not affect me much that fall because I was already living in poverty — voluntary poverty. Upon graduating, I decided to do a year of full-time service, so I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. In 2008 and 2009, I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and worked as a community organizer for a national nonprofit.
I worked full-time receiving only a tiny monthly stipend, but together with my roommates, all fellow volunteers, I got by. Even though I didn’t make any money during my service time, I earned real-world job experience, which proved invaluable to me. I also learned how to live on very little money, and that also became useful in later years.
When I completed my service I enrolled in a graduate program in writing, my true passion. This might seem like an impractical pursuit, but both of my parents were writers — my mom taught writing and my dad worked in communications — so a career in this profession didn’t seem impossible to me. I believed that if I underwent rigorous study and really improved my abilities, I could write for a living.
Now, my parents had a rule for me. I could live at home rent-free only if I was in school and putting my money toward that, and I still had to contribute in other ways, like cooking, cleaning, and errands. So I moved in with them, and was lucky enough to get a job in administration for a Philadelphia arts and culture nonprofit. I put my job earnings toward my tuition and was able to earn my degree without too much debt.
But I’m not going to lie, those were a tough two years. Working full-time and going to school full-time is brutal. Still, I’m glad I did it, because when I finished I was only three years out of college, with a Master’s degree and three years of full-time job experience. Having that work experience, even if I wasn’t earning very much while I was getting it, has helped me a lot.
While I was in grad school and working, I also got engaged to Mike, a wonderful man I had been friends with since high school. Mike graduated veterinary school at the same time as I received my graduate degree, and we were both interested in furthering our careers. Mike wanted to do a veterinary internship and I wanted to move to a city with more opportunities for writers and editors so I could get a job in my field. We ended up in Boston.
Mike completed a year-long internship in an emergency hospital that sometimes required him to work eighty-hour weeks, while paying very little, and I struggled for months to find a job. I did some freelance writing work, and got a part-time job at an upscale dog-walking and boarding facility while I continued to apply for full-time work. I got to know my new city on foot and it was wonderful exercise, but I still felt frustrated that my job essentially consisted of cleaning up dog poop. I wasn’t using my mind at all for most of my working hours. Still, I was grateful for the income, and I liked spending time with the animals.
I applied for jobs constantly, which, as many say, is a full-time job unto itself. Finally, after eight months of being sure I was a failure and struggling to make ends meet, I interviewed for two separate assistant editor jobs, and both places made offers. I was absolutely overjoyed. Today I work as a content development editor for a Boston cultural institution. The main functions of my job are writing and editing, and I couldn’t be happier.
I did work hard for the past couple of years, and throughout school, too, but I don’t believe that I earned the place where I am today by myself. Like most people, I owe a lot of my current situation to a combination of luck and the generosity of other folks. I graduated from undergrad debt free due to scholarships and the money my parents saved up for my college education. The fact that my parents let me move back in with them during graduate school and put my earnings toward tuition rather than rent was a wonderful gift.
Thanks to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, I was able to stay on my parents’ insurance while I was without full-time work, when I likely would have been without insurance otherwise. Most importantly, I had the support of friends and family who didn’t think I was crazy for wanting to pursue writing as a career, and who listened when I cried about not amounting to anything.
Today Mike and I are married and very happy. We consider ourselves incredibly lucky. We both have full-time jobs in our dream fields, and, for the first time, we make middle-class earnings. We have chosen to live below our means so that we can pay off our student loans more quickly, so we still scrimp a bit, but we are no longer worried about making rent.
I’m thankful for the gratitude and empathy that came out of this experience. I could never have become self-supporting without the help I had. Now that I know what it’s like to be without a full-time job, I will never take it for granted again. And I feel for those who are still struggling and do everything I can to support them, whether it’s passing along job information, offering to recommend someone, or simply listening to their frustrations over a cup of coffee.
Is our generation ever going to have the easy wealth or opportunities that others have known? Probably not. But things are looking up for us Millennials. I see it among my compatriots. Many of my friends who were unemployed or underemployed a few years ago are now working full-time in their chosen fields. Slowly but surely things are improving due to the help of many people, from parents to government, and I am very grateful for that. Now let’s continue that upward trajectory.
Are you a twenty-something voting for President Obama? What is driving your decision on Election Day?