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The Myth Of The Self-Made Millennial


We're going to switch gears now and take up a subject many people find awkward and uncomfortable to talk about even though we seem to talk about it all the time. No, not that. We're talking about that other thing - money. Who has it, how they're using it and whether they deserve to have it or not - few things seem to cause more consternation and excitement than talking about other people's money.

The most recent flashpoint was an article this month in the women's lifestyle magazine Refinery29. An installment of their Money Diaries series titled "A Week In New York City On $25/Hour" sparked a furious response online. It turns out the intern profiled was living on $25 an hour plus a significant allowance from her parents plus her parents who paid her rent and her tuition and her phone bill.

And there have been other online dustups - a cover story in Forbes magazine that called Kylie Jenner of the Kardashian clan self-made, an article in the real estate section of The New York Times about two privileged young women apartment hunting in Manhattan. So cue the outrage, yes. But is there something deeper we need to think about here? Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker has been writing about this, and she's with us now on the line.

Jia, thanks so much for talking with us.

JIA TOLENTINO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I want to talk a little bit about that Money Diaries piece. What was it that really seemed to irritate people?

TOLENTINO: Well, so at first, the headline was that this woman was living on $25 an hour, and, as you said, that's not what she was living on. She got $1,100 a month from her family. You know, they were paying for her education, her rent.

And I think the story of a well-off New York college student getting her rent subsidized by her parents is a pretty normal one, but it was initially the headline which obscured the nature of this woman's financial support in the same way that many young people obscure their own financial support by saying, you know, like, oh, I'm broke. My internship only pays $25 an hour - neglecting to sort of reckon with the deep privilege of having generous financial support from your family behind that. I think that's part of the reason it struck such a nerve.

MARTIN: And then there was that Forbes cover that made reality TV personality Kylie Jenner - called her a self-made billionaire. And that seemed to really push a lot of people's buttons. What was it about sort of describing her as self-made that tapped into this kind of resentment that you're talking about?

TOLENTINO: Well, so Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner's sister, gave a follow-up interview to Refinery29, and she seemed genuinely perplexed at the fact that people were questioning that label self-made. She said, we're all self-made. Nobody works harder than my sisters and my mom. You know, we've never depended on our parents for anything. You know, and there's a bit of self-delusion involved in that - to understate things (laughter).

MARTIN: So you said that the agita directed at these recent articles - you said that this is much less about the articles themselves and much more about the era and the nation that we live in. What do you mean by that, and why do you say that?

TOLENTINO: So, you know, we're living in an era of world historical economic inequality, you know. Like, we're the - America is the richest large country in the history of the world, and a full third of our population struggles to meet their basic needs. There's this thing where, you know, Jeff Bezos - you know, the richest man in the world - his warehouse workers sometimes have to urinate in plastic bottles because they get punished for taking too long of bathroom breaks. And I think there's this ambient, really legitimate resentment at the policy and the structure of American wealth that's allowed things to get this way.

MARTIN: I want to go back to that intern Money Diary for Refinery29. The website's work and money editor wrote a response to the comments that they were getting about this, and she said, first of all, the haters come out whenever it's women talking about money. Do you think that there is a gender component to this?

TOLENTINO: Yeah. I mean, of course, like, young women who appear to be superficial are the lowest hanging fruit for public ridicule there is. But Refinery29's Money Diaries are all women. There's a reason that there's no equivalent men's magazine with Money Diaries for men because it's - young women are expected to sort of perform likability at all times, and it extends to their financial life. Which is why in that Times article about the two women looking for a $4,000 a month apartment in New York City, you know, coming right out of college, they kept feeling the need to announce that they pack their own lunch for work, and they really want to live in a walk-up, and they don't want to live in a doorman building.

There's this way in which young women are acutely aware of the fact that in this era where we do have such rampant, severe inequality, they are kind of reflexively shying away from their own privilege and trying to disown it.

MARTIN: Well, I want to go back to what you said in your piece, though. You say that our current political system is stacked so firmly in favor of those who wish to keep things this way that we have found ourselves, as usual, litigating these issues in discourse rather than in policy. I mean, it sounds to me like you're saying that people kind of sublimate their anger at how stuck they feel by picking at other people as opposed to kind of dealing with this issue through politics.

TOLENTINO: The fact that so much anger gets channeled into, you know, reacting to these stories that really don't mean anything - you know, I mean, the anger about every New York real estate story, right - to me, it's like an anger about the fact that there's no political energy to push through legislation for - like, for example, you know, a massive tax on foreign real estate investment. We have these empty, incredibly expensive spaces for housing in New York and so little for people that are actually working people in New York. It's understandable, if not necessarily productive, that people's discontent with the lack of conversation about truly redistributive policy solutions get channeled into, like, knee-jerk anger at Forbes calling Kylie Jenner self-made.

MARTIN: That's Jia Tolentino. She wrote a piece called "Refinery29, Kylie Jenner And The Denial Underlying Millennial Financial Resentment." That was published in The New Yorker on the July 24 issue.

Jia Tolentino, thanks so much for joining us.

TOLENTINO: Thanks for having me.


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