Better Days

This one is a bit depresso, sorry.

On the edge of sleep, if you feel like you’re falling and startle yourself awake, you’ve experienced a “hypnic jerk.” The cause is not entirely known, but it’s likely a fumble in the handoff between normal wakefulness and sleep. Your brain didn’t get the memo and jerks you awake. It can even happen a couple of times in a row, especially if you are stressed or otherwise preoccupied.

Welcome to how my generation lives. We’re in our late thirties and early forties now. We get called Xennials, Elder Millennials, the Oregon Trail Generation, all sorts of things. Mostly, we’re waiting to feel that we’re falling again. The space we occupy is one, everlasting hypnic jerk. 

This is probably my third bust, after the dot-com crash of the early aughts and the great recession in 2009. Every generation gets uniquely screwed in their own way. There’s not much point in comparing our woes like old men in a misery contest, but it does affect how we all see the world and react to new challenges. Right now, our view of the world is fundamental to understanding what happens next. It won’t be pretty.  

If you’ve ever worked at an agency, or freelanced, you learn the value of “setting expectations.” People get the most upset when their expectations don’t meet reality. This is as true for a client as it is for the happiness of an individual. Most “happiness studies” show we are unhappiest when there’s the greatest gap between their expectations and reality; this usually happens in a person’s 40’s and 50’s. For Elder Millennials, this constant shifting of reality versus expectations has been our status quo for two decades now. Everything we thought we knew turned out to be wrong—and very much at odds with reality. 

Did you think that college admissions is a meritocracy? Well, Jared Kushner is in your Western Civ class, and he’d like a word with you. 

Did you think that the electoral process is fair? The State of Florida is on line one.

Did you think that there’s no real difference between Democrats and Republicans? Great, please enjoy two wars that last nearly twenty years. 

Did you think that the value of a home can only go up? That a home is something that one day you can hope to own? That you can hope to do better financially than your parents? Wrong. Erroneous. Incorrect. 

I freelanced for six years after I graduated college. I’m not sure if that made me better or worse off than those in my cohort who got full-time work. It made me less afraid of what happens when the other shoe drops. It also made me expect that the other shoe was about to drop all the time. I didn’t feel comfortable putting personal items in an office workspace until I was in my 30’s. 

The first time I worked somewhere that went bust, I was fact-checking at a Condé-owned publication. We were told the magazine was folding. As a permalancer, that was just… it. Go home. There’s nothing to fact-check because there’s no magazine. 

The second time I worked somewhere that went bust, I was on vacation, during an off week. I got a call telling me that the magazine was done as I walked through Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. RIP my employment status.   

Recently, what now qualifies as an “oldie” came up on a playlist and got me thinking about this history: Better Days (And The Bottom Drops Out). It’s a snapshot of so many different 90’s things: vaguely hip-hop record skritches, lyrical nods to being broke and working at the Dollar Store, the greenish tint of the music video. The notion of “things are shitty but they’ve been better” read as cynical at the time, but it feels earnest now. It’s not a polemic against late-stage capitalism and structural inequality, it’s just, boy, ain’t this crap? Twenty-one years on, this song is old enough to drink. Wouldn’t you want a drink after twenty-one years of waiting for the better days to return?

Nothing is rebuilt or replaced after each bust. Instead, the dismantling continues. Read Ranjan Roy’s take on DoorDash’s IPO. The thumbnail version is that they’re more than happy to take advantage of every loophole… and it’s not wrong by the book, even if it’s cynical as all hell. It’s the Uber model:

They are hyper-aggressive and will attack every imaginable loophole and push every possible regulatory boundary… Even if things seemed out of bounds, everything Uber was doing was within the limits of the law. Everything Doordash has done has been within the rules of the game as we, as a society, have outlined them...Their model of worker compensation, their culture of pushing legal boundaries, their dependence on market concentration, and their slowly accrued power over the suppliers in their marketplaces all become the norm. 

When do we agree that whatever this is, it’s not working? It’s great if you’ve got stock in one of these companies before they launch an IPO, but everything on the margins is destroyed. Housing, full-time employment, small businesses. And we keep doing it! Sometime in the early 80’s, it was decided that the operating principle for life in the United States of America was that, if I have money, you can’t fucking tell me what to do. It happened right around the time that my generation was born. And the country has been living with the consequences of that choice ever since.      

Every bust has winners and losers. Americans simply choose not to side with the people who are suffering. Decades of prosperity gospel atrophied our brains, so we can only imagine coming out on the other side of this as one of the winners. Anyone who expects things to turn out badly is a pessimist... or, they’ve spent the past twenty years watching the bottom drop out. Again. And again. And again.