Long Form

An American in America: An Interview With An Early Millennial

Millennials are people born from approximately 1980 to 2000. Millennials are the fourth of the four currently living adult generation cultural groupings. They were preceded by Generation X (approximately 1964-1980), who were preceded by the Baby Boomers (approximately 1946-1964), who followed the Silent Generation (approximately 1927-1945).  Millennials have been called entitled, narcissistic and perhaps the greatest generation of our time. I decided to interview a Millennial I know to find out more.  

The interview was conducted over a Skype video call on Sunday, December 7, 2014. It lasted just about one hour. My Millennial took the interview from his phone. He was holding his cat throughout the interview. I couldn’t see the cat, but once in a while I could see the cat’s tail in the screen. He represents the American Dream, still alive today, I think. He talks about baseball and the Blues, of family and God, and his wife, of loving small town America, of the big and bright New York City. We also talked about education, social mobility and the future. He was all the generations rolled into one.

We started off continuing an e-mail discussion regarding a point on his resume, the Durkin Prize, a peer awarded recognition of his major in American Studies at Georgetown University. I then asked him about his thesis for his major, American Studies.

How is something really American?

It’s interesting. I don’t know if you know: the whole American Studies world is all about “what is American and what is not?” So, all the pieces look at anything from that perspective and how it defines being an American . . . I wasn’t making a judgment about the Blues in general. You have to get very specific and say I’m just looking at the way that Martin Scorsese and the directors of these films perceive the Blues as American and how they portray it. And the way that I decided that it [the Blues] is American, to these guys, is through the fact that it comes from a conglomeration of . . . different cultures . . . African, Southern, European and these are the elements . . . which essentially make it American. The fragmentation of it all . . . Because our culture was created from all these disparate parts . . .

Do you like music?

Yeah, I do. I like music. I’ve always listened to music and love music. I’ve never been like, “Music is my all consuming passion.” But, I certainly like music and I ended up doing that as my subject matter because I was taking a Blues course at the time and I honestly didn’t know what else I was going to write my thesis on. . .

One of the cool things about the American Studies degree is that you had to write a thesis. It’s the only major at Georgetown, at least when I was there, where everyone who graduated with that degree has to write a thesis. And, you don’t get an honors for it. If you write a thesis as an English major . . .  it’s because you want to get recognized. You want to get special honors. In order to graduate you had to write a thesis [in American Studies].

The major is so disparate, there are a couple of core classes, but then you create it through your choice of English classes, theology classes, history classes. There is no finite [configuration]. So, everyone had to do it.

It’s this great concept, as with a lot of things in undergrad, you’re so pumped you’re going to be writing a thesis. It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be the greatest thing ever. But, then when we you actually have to do it you’re like “What the hell am I going to write about?”

How did you constitute your curriculum?

It’s very disparate . . . each semester you have a couple different American Civilization classes you have to take which were about the history of America. And, then I did some music classes my senior year. I did a lot of literary classes . . . I took an expatriats class.  I took a Faulkner class. I may have even taken a couple of Faulkner classes. I took a couple theology classes. Basically, you have to check off all these classes . . . whether it’s theology, English or history, with an American bent.

Obviously I ended up doing a Blues class or I think it was a Jazz class and then a history of Rock class as well . . . I didn’t go as heavy into the history because some people go really deep into the government history route. I didn’t do that. . . . [I picked the culture side].

How did you pick American Studies?

I picked American Studies because I didn’t know what to major in and I was a sophomore and had to make a decision. I didn’t want to just be an English major; it wasn’t as interesting. In conversations with my academic guidance person [they told me], “There’s this really interesting major that’s inter-disciplinarian. . . What defines it is that you have to write a thesis. But, it can fit with the perspective you have because you don’t necessarily want to be government or history or whatever.”

Was it the inter-disciplinarianism of it [that was interesting]?

Yeah, this was really interesting. You can define it as you go along. There are a couple of core classes within it but it gave you a lot of flexibility and I didn’t have this one specific thing that I wanted to know so much about. A lot of people that I went to school with . . . were like, “I went here to take this very specific SFS [School of Foreign Service] major and want to know everything there is in the world about  . . . . [boundary disputes].”

I’m very happy I had to do a thesis. At the time, knowing myself, [I thought], “This will force me to do a thesis. I’ll be happy at the end of the day. If I do nothing else in my life I will have written a nice 65 to 70 page paper. I’ll at least have done that.”

Where were you born? When were you born? What were the circumstances of your birth?

I was born in Florida in 1982. The circumstances of my birth: I am the 3rd child . . .  I have an older sister who is 3 years older and I have an older brother who is 5 years older. I was the third of three. At the time my dad was a professor . . . .  I lived [in Florida] until I was [around 5] and my dad got a job to be the dean of [a discipline] in [a university] in [a Southern State]. . . It either would have been the summer of 1987 or summer of ‘88 that we moved to [a Southern Town].

That’s where you went to high school?

And, so then I lived in [this Southern Town] . . . to 18. I went to preschool and all the way through high school in the same city, in the same school district.

What was that like?

You know, I loved my childhood. What was great about [this Southern Town], because everyone has their prejudices about [this Southern State], many of which are probably true to some extent, but this Southern Town is a university town, which is nice. A ton of the people that you grew up with and that you knew are there because of the university.

But, it’s still very small. I mean it’s kind of amazing. There were probably 300 people, maybe by the time we graduated 250 people, in my graduating high school class. We all went from kindergarten/preschool to senior year of high school together. So by the time you graduated (obviously people move and that stuff) you have probably been in 2nd or 3rd or 5th or 7th grade class with almost every single person you graduated with.You know everybody.

What did that feel like? Some people might really love it but other people might feel trapped and like they want to get away.

Yeah. I really really enjoyed it. I think part of it is because I grew up . . .  with my family. We all knew a lot of people, got along. People liked my family. They liked me . . . It was a positive environment, knowing everybody.

And, it wasn’t so so so small that you felt trapped by it. I think I very much felt the positive aspects of being both familiar and . . . [the] confidence that you don’t just feel like a small grain of sand in this huge world. . . . I have a place. People know me.

And, then as you get older it’s nice because whether you’re doing soccer or theater or what have you there’s really a chance to become a part of that community in the town and become a central part of that. You’re not one . . . of 15 select soccer teams. You’re on the only select soccer team your town has . . .

Did you play soccer?

Yes. I played baseball when I was a kid. Baseball was huge in [this Southern Town]. And, I was really really good at baseball when I was little. And, then as I got older I got pretty bad at baseball. It was kinda sad. I was an All Star up until like 7th or 8th grade then I just wasn’t good anymore.

(Laughing) What happened?

I don’t know . . . I think that the things that made me really good when I was little was that I was pretty smart and quick and understood the game but I didn’t have . . . a super strong arm.. . . I wasn’t a super duper awesome power hitter. So the things that would normally, sort of like catch up with you, was the fact that physically I just wasn’t going to be an amazing baseball player. So, by the time I got to be a little bit older, I just wasn’t very good anymore.

So, you decided to play soccer.

Yeah, so I played soccer at the same time growing up. Because you sorta play everything. It’s a small town, everyone plays everything. And, I stayed pretty good at soccer. So, I just maintained that . . .

Coming out of high school, if you can go back to when you were graduating from high school, what did you think about the world then? What was the one lesson you came out of high school with at that point?

So, this isn’t going to totally answer your question directly. But, I’ll say one of the interesting things was growing up in a small town, growing up in a university town, growing up in a town where you knew everybody, I think one of the big perspectives I had coming out of high school was, I knew that I wanted, that I really enjoyed the circumstances in which I grew up.

But, I knew very much that I wanted to get out and go to college somewhere where I didn’t know anybody; that . . didn’t have the same culture I grew up in. To experience something new. For instance, I knew that I did not want to go to an . . . SEC school . . . where you have fraternities and sororities and . . . a very distinct southern culture . . .

Most of the people you went to [high] school with, is that where they went?

Yeah, a lot of them did. And, again, because we were a university town, it’s a little bit unique. You still had people who were . . .  going to Ivy League schools and good schools because we, especially for [this Southern State], had a very very good education system. Partly because so many people were wives or husbands of professors [and] were teachers at high school or junior high . . . You actually had high level education. Whereas, if I had grown up in a small town in [this Southern State] that wasn’t a university town, I would not have even ever dreamed of going to a school in the Northeast.

How did you pick Georgetown?

I picked Georgetown because I knew that I wanted to . . . get out of the Southern bubble. And, I didn’t want to go to a big state school. I had a thought that I wanted to go to more of a liberal arts school. Because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do . . . I applied to a couple of different schools. I applied to Northwestern, Georgetown and I applied also to UVA . . . So, I applied to those three and then I didn’t get into UVA but I got into Northwestern and Georgetown, which both fit that realm. I ended up picking Georgetown for a couple of reasons one of which was honestly the location. My brother was in New York and the East Coast just felt like a place I wanted to go to more than being in Chicago in the winter, which just didn’t seem very doable to me.

Bringing you back to today, what does a typical day look like for you?

To today? A typical day for me, I work in the digital advertising world in New York City. I work at [Large Company Employer] . . . A typical day for me is . . . my wife and I will get up, on the days that she’s working . . . we’ll get up at 6:45, we’ll try to have coffee and breakfast together and do a daily devotional and just talk about our day and the things that we’re thinking about.

Then I’ll go into work. My day to day work . . . varies a lot. . . Because I’m in sales, in digital sales very specifically, and I have a boss who is not super duper . . . I’ve worked with for a while so he trusts me – he’s not a big micromanager. So, my day to day schedule is very much up to me.

It consists of, on a good day, I’ve been able to book a couple of meetings with agencies with some clients. Let’s say I’ll come into the office, I’ll probably get into the office around 9 o’clock, have some follow up’s, whether it’s campaigns that are live, or emails that I need to follow up on or just things that I need to look into for a couple of hours. I’ll then go to the agency to meet with the clients and what I’m doing in those meetings generally at this point is still pitching [my Employer] . . .

I’m going into these agencies proactively, to be on their radar, to say “Hey, you represent [some National Company]. You head up their [specific focus] efforts. We have the audience that you want to hit. We have the scale that you want to hit that audience at. We have a lot of cool creative capabilities. So, next time you get a brief from [your company] around an upcoming campaign for Q1 or Q2 or whatever, you should include us in the proposal process.”

Then I’ll have a couple of those meetings and then hopefully, you know, things have gone well in previous meetings and then you’ll actually get a proposal to say, “Hey, we want to consider [your Employer] for an upcoming campaign. Put together a program for us at $200,000.” I would then, as a part of my day, take that to our internal creative planning teams and spearhead: “Look, we’ve got this brief from a media perspective, what kind of inventory do we have? What plans should we put together? And, then from a creative perspective internally we have teams who come up with ideas to say why should [a Company] work with us. ‘Well, we’ll do this really cool custom editorial series and we’ll create these really cool special ads and we’ll do all of these different things.’” . . . It essentially becomes a large powerpoint deck to say, “If you spent this $200,000 with us this is the program we would put together and these are all the different ways we’d reach your audience. And, then also this is just what your actual plan would look like.”

The day consists of in the office, going to meetings, coming back, coordinating those proposals that . . . usually have 3 or 4 day turn arounds, and then occasionally an internal meeting here or there just to meet with your boss to say, “Hey, what business have you booked to date for this quarter? What’s looking ahead for next quarter? How are you looking ahead for the year?” To make sure from a sales perspective you’re staying on your goals and you know where you’re going.

What do you think – backtracking – has been the job that has shaped you the most?

There’s probably a couple of different ways I could answer that. What’s been interesting for me is that I’ve had a very . . . I guess it’s not atypical for our generation because a lot of people have different careers and different jobs, but, my career path up to this point in time has been has been . . . I don’t know what the word I’m looking for is. I guess the word is varied.

In some ways, the answer to that question would be, the first job I had out of college which was I graduated college, didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do in terms of long-term life goal perspective. But, I knew that I wanted to volunteer, give back and maybe teach for a couple of years to see if I liked that and just to get that experience.

So, I worked at a high school in [a NYC neighborhood]. I helped start a volunteer program there. Live-in. Lived in a rectory, taught English, taught computer science. In some ways that one would be the most formative one simply because in those two years helped me realize (a) that I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher and also (b) helped to codify that, I came out of school with a very very as liberal arts as you can possibly get degree, right? An interdisciplinarian degree from Georgetown University, you know what I mean? You can’t get more liberal arts than that. It helped drive me towards, “Okay, how am I going to then use those skills but apply that to an actual career mindset or focus?”

Having that job as a teacher for two years – and I did more than just teach – but having that for two years, helped inform me of, “I enjoyed this a lot, it was incredibly challenging, but I know that I can’t, I don’t, want to do this for a living. So, then what do I want to do?” Not . . .  that I was going to then have a Eureka moment of “I’m going to become a lawyer” but [more like] “What direction do I want to move in?” Which then helped inform saying, “Okay I have the liberal arts aspect of [the] way my mind works, but I need to inform the more practical, maybe business aspect.” Which then drove me to decide to go back to school and to get my MBA . . .  which then has driven me down the path of where I am now.

That was the pivotal job, right? And, I’m sure I’ll have another one down the road which will do the same thing in a different way.

All the choices that you’ve made have been towards more education, [given] the media coverage now of, and billionaires weighing in on [higher education], that it’s a wasted thing and the reality of young millennials or millennials who are eschewing [higher education]. What do you think about that? Do you think your education has done what you thought it would do?

The perspective I have has very much been informed by the family I’ve grown up in which is my mom’s a teacher and my dad is, essentially, a teacher as well. He’s a professor. I inherently will always very much value education and have certainly always thought, while certainly expensive, education is never a bad thing.

Now, having said that, education is incredibly expensive. A lot of the conversation that you see, like you say, in the media and whether or not it’s folks out in Silicon Valley paying people, giving them scholarships or awards not to go to college because you don’t need it, all of that really centers around the cost of education which is a super complex thing and very difficult. Outside of that, the cost is a very difficult thing to work your way through.

I was fortunate that at least my parents were willing to pay for my undergrad degree. I took on the cost of my graduate degree. Outside of going down the path of opportunity cost, was it worth it, was it not, all of that stuff, I think the thing that has been so valuable about both educational experiences I have had have been that it has allowed me to enter into parts of, even society (I know that sounds a little grandiose), but parts of society that I normally would not have had access to if I had not been able to establish the relationships that I established out of Georgetown.

And, I don’t just mean getting to know rich people. Even the school where I ended up starting a volunteer program came about because a very good friend of mine at Georgetown, her father was very familiar with this really cool up-and-coming education concept that had been started in Chicago and they had just planned a new school in New York. And, she knew that I wanted to go into teaching and do a couple of different things coming out of undergrad. So, that’s how I ended up down that path.

And, then even if I think about how I ended up . . .  getting an MBA degree, [that] came about then through the relationships that I had at the school where I taught – believe it or not – and people that I had known from Georgetown which ended up leading me get my [MBA] degree from [an Ivy League University].

And, then while at [the MBA University], meeting people who, through the career network and just friends, [were] like “Oh, I have this friend who works at this internet company, you should go interview with them and talk to them and [get] to know them.” And, literally that’s where I ended up working, at this small internet company. And, then since then have stayed with the same people that I’ve worked with [there] . . .

So, because I have been someone whose life and career has very much been defined by relationships – I mean I have literally never had a job, to date, that hasn’t come about directly from a relationship that I’ve had previously  . . . all of that ties back to me to the educational experiences I’ve had. From that perspective, I think it’s really difficult [to deny the value of higher education]. . . [What] going to college allows you to do is to create those [relationships] with people who are your peers at a pretty large scale very quickly.

Now, is the English classes that you are taking out of Georgetown worth the price per class, you know, if you break down this is how much it costs for you to go to each credit? No, because you can take an English class for free online. At [the MBA University], the accounting classes I took were regular accounting classes. I could take that online. I don’t need to go into ten years of debt for that. But, the experiences and the people that I met have very much defined where I’ve been able to go.

It’s hard because I think what you often see is the education conversation and the people saying you don’t need it comes from incredibly wealthy successful people in the tech space, who have a very skewed view of what a more general education can do. I think clearly if you have a brilliant idea that’s some incredible invention certainly you don’t necessarily need to have gone to school to come up with that. But, more generally speaking to help inform an 18 year old and help them understand where they want to go and what they want to do, there’s a ton of value in that. But, it also doesn’t mean that you need to go to some expensive school that’s going to put you in debt for the rest of your life.

What person (dead or alive) do you think has shaped your life the most?

It’s hard for me because I immediately think of, you know, family and my wife and my parents and my siblings. That’s sort of where I default . . . I don’t know if I could say number one . . . I think about different parts of my life, right? I’ve been married for five years to [my wife]. We’ve been together for ten. So, in the last ten years she has definitely been the number one person who has influenced who I am and where I’m going.

But, before I knew her, my parents, my older brother, my older sister, were huge influences as I was going through high school and college . . . My siblings, I think, were really big as you go through high school and college and you navigate these new experiences. Especially, like, they both, you know, we all grew up in [this Southern State]. We all went to school elsewhere. We all ended up moving to New York. [They] very much were hugely important in helping me understand how to handle things you’re navigating. We come, obviously, from similar backgrounds, so that gives you the perspective of knowing . . . appreciating we’re dealing with these things in the context of all having the same childhood. So, it can be really helpful to know, “How did you handle these things? How did you work through them?” . . .

I haven’t ever had this icon that  . . . I’ve always admired above all else, that’s ruled my life, like a historical figure. Because some people would be like, “I always wanted to emulate,” this is an . . . overused example but like, “Martin Luther King” or whoever it would be.  And, I think part of that is because if I had a very specific vocation, if I had become a musician or an aid worker or an actor or an artist, I would probably be more apt to be like, “This is the person . . . when I saw this person’s art I knew that this is what I wanted to do and so now I’m following them forever.” But, I’m like in digital ad sales and I certainly would not say that . . . Warren Buffet or somebody who’s made a lot of money is the person I’m emulating because I don’t really care about that either. So it’s just been a conglomeration of people, I think.

That segueways to another question . . . in your view, what does success in life look like to you, for you? You just said that it wouldn’t be Warren Buffet, or about making money.

Yeah, but who is going to say that? That’s the easy thing to say, right? Nobody would probably willingly be like, “Success is about making as much money as possible.” Unless you’re just a total jack ass, right? Because everyone sorta knows that that’s not the right perspective to have.

I think given . . . the household in which I grow up in – my parents were professors and so in [this Southern State] – [I] certainly had a totally stable childhood in terms of financial stuff, but those are also not careers where you strike it big and all of a sudden have a gazillion dollars. They’re very steady. For them, money was never the end goal . .  It was never the focus of things. And, I think they very much, if you look at all of my siblings, my brother is an actor, my sister is a musician, two careers which are pretty much guaranteed not to make any money. My parents have very much always said that the focus for us is, “To make sure you guys are doing what you want to do and being challenged in the way that you want to be challenged.” And it’s never been about just making as much money as possible.

And, I think because we grew up in a very safe environment, we never. . . Sometimes, if you grew up in a very unstable financial background then the number one focus just becomes financial stability. So, I think to this point in time, I would say success means, to some extent, making sure you’re in a career and you’re doing things that are keeping you personally challenged and connected.

Certainly, I think success is defined by the personal relationships that you have. I mean, I think at the end of the day, as we all would probably agree . . . you want to make sure you’re taking care of the people that you love whether that’s your husband or your wife or your kids and your family because those are the things that are ultimately gonna be around and going to be defining your happiness, so.

I don’t know I’m rambling, I don’t have a concrete answer for that . . . And, look, the reality then becomes, as you get older, you do want to have some money, you do want to be able to be stable and you do want to do all these things. But, you have to be careful not to let those things slowly . . . creep into and overwhelm your visions of success. Because I think that can happen and especially in places like New York. Because the day to day can be very difficult and things are expensive and hard and so you can very much lose perspective with that.

What idea or belief or concept do you think has shaped your life the most?

For me, I grew up in a very conservative strong Christian family. I think that certainly one of the most defining beliefs and systems in my life has been Christianity and faith. And, that idea of loving God and worshiping God has very much informed my view. . . . of success and the life I wanted to have. I mean if I think of who I married, a huge part of knowing the person I wanted to marry was a shared belief system, you know? And, being able to challenge each other in that and grow in that way. And, that’s certainly been a big part of my life thus far and I hope to be the case moving forward.

Are you glad that you live in this time?

Yeah. I have to say . . . We have a lot of conveniences that are pretty nice. I love fast food. It would be very difficult to live in a time when I couldn’t enjoy some really tasty fast food treats (laughs).

Well, and I think that not only do we live in this time, but we live in a country, and I live in a family where we are a part of a generation which is truly allowed to, I think, enjoy life and actually explore . . . our passions and what we want to do. I mean, you think about so much of [history] . . . unless you were part of the uber elite – for almost the entirety of history – you had no choice with what you were going to do with your life. You were going to do what your family did, what your father did. You were going to do that every day until you died. And, you weren’t going to move up in society. That was just your fixed place in life. So, the fact that we have the chance to be able to live outside of those constraints is pretty awesome.

So, just two more questions, that are random. If you could speak to someone 100 years from now what would you say to them? If you could leave something that 100 years from now could be broadcast from mega speakers into America, what would you say? [Your answer can be] as short or as long as you want.

My initial thought, if I’m thinking about a hundred years from now is to make some cynical comment about how . . . . Literally, the first thing that came to my mind was, I don’t know why, when you said a hundred years, but immediately my mind went to climate change and thinking everyone’s gonna be living in some protective bubbles because we’ll have destroyed the world by then. I don’t know why that happened.

So my thought was, for some reason my comment to people a hundred years from now would be, “Well, you know, the beaches were great while they lasted. Sorry.

Last question, this one is kind of a big one and you can pass on it if you want to. What do you think is the biggest thing wrong with society today?

That’s a pretty intense question. The biggest thing wrong with society . . . as in U.S. society or the world? . . . I mean (a) I don’t know that I’m at all, I probably don’t feel comfortable saying the biggest thing that’s wrong. I mean, I just don’t, because there’s, I mean, you know, I think you would just say inequality or something because . . .

The number one worst thing about our world . . . according to [me]. The worst thing about . . . The entire world (chuckles). This is a little intense . . . Well, I tend to be the sarcastic person so my inclination is to give some funny tongue in cheek comment as opposed to giving some . . . I mean, you know, that everyone has never . . . [talking to his pet] “What’s the biggest problem in society?”

That not all people have gotten to experience the joy of southern sweet tea.

You really love sweet tea, huh?

I love sweet tea, southern BBQ. I mean because if I give an honest answer, it’ll just sound . . . I mean not honest, that’s honest. . . But, I mean there’s so much wrong, what are you going to say? There’s a gazillion things wrong with our society.

I’m never someone who likes to get up on a high horse because I always feel like a, you know. . .

You and me. We’re the problem . . . Humanity. Original sin.

The featured image is “American Village” by Edward Hopper painted in 1912. This work of Hopper is in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


I write abecedarian sequences

4 replies on “An American in America: An Interview With An Early Millennial”

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