Debunking that Millennial’s Open Letter to that Millennial Who Wrote an Open Letter to Her CEO:

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So yesterday, I wrote this series of tweets in response to someone who wrote a piece slamming another woman for writing an open letter to the CEO of the company she was working for. (She has since been fired.) Since then, I’ve collected my thoughts in a more long-form format, which is what brings us here today.

In her Open Letter to Millennials Like Talia, Stefanie Williams compares her own life experiences to Talia’s in order to demonstrate that Talia’s complaints are not valid. She talks about the difference in their ages (5 years) and explains that when she was in her early 20s, she too struggled to make ends meet, but she managed to pull herself up by her bootstraps. So what’s the problem?

Well, actually, there are several. As it turns out, Stefanie’s experiences in the New York City metropolitan area around 2009 are not at all comparable to Talia’s experiences in the San Francisco metro area in 2016. To start, Stefanie mentions walking into a bar where a family friend worked in hopes of a drink, and being offered a job on the spot. Here’s the problem: not only did Stefanie have an inside connection that allowed her to score that job, but also the service in the Bay Area has become saturated with workers who are not only experienced, but are also actually skilled labor. In order to find a restaurant job in the Bay Area, one actually needs a broad knowledge of spirits, wines, beers, food preparation practices, local suppliers… and more. Additionally, in order to even be considered for a hosting job (which is where Stefanie started out), one needs to be proficient in the use of restaurant-centric systems like OpenTable and the various POS systems restaurants rely on to do their business. Because the service industry is one of the only areas outside of the tech industry where workers have a chance at potentially making money decent enough to scrape by, even veterans with 10 years of experience, and special skills, are vying against one another for jobs for which they are overqualified and often being passed over for hire. One does not simply walk into a restaurant in San Francisco and get hired in the same way they did a decade ago.

Additionally, Stefanie mentions making $15 per hour, which at the time, was more than twice the minimum wage in New York City. Stefanie says her paychecks, after taxes, worked out to $168 per week for the two shifts she started with. If Stefanie had been working 8-hour shifts (which is rare for hostesses, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt), that puts her take-home pay per hour around $10.50, which is still over 25% more than Talia’s post-taxes rate of about $8 per hour. Putting this further in context, the current minimum wage in the City of San Francisco, where Talia was working, is $12.25 per hour, which means her pre-tax compensation is, at best, only slightly above minimum wage, rather than the double-the-minimum wage Stefanie was earning at the job her family connections landed her.

Stefanie insists that Talia’s problem, that Milennials’ problem in general, is laziness and an unwillingness to do “demeaning” labor, but the real problem is that in most cases, the opportunity simply doesn’t exist. “God forbid she have to give up a weekend day to be a waitress,” writes Stefanie, but the truth of the matter is that no restaurant, bar, or cafe in the Bay Area is going to hire an inexperienced worker who also has scheduling restrictions. Every once in a while, it’s possible to elbow your way into the restaurant industry through connections and perseverance, but a crucial part of that is having open availability, the ability to cover shifts last-minute, and the willingness to work the shifts no one else wants to work (like Monday lunches or Tuesday nights anywhere tacos are not on the menu), not smacking down a resume and declaring, “I WILL WORK SATURDAYS.” Everybody wants to work Saturdays. Saturdays are where the money is. Inexperienced, nontenured newbies do not work Saturdays.

Stefanie also blames Talia for accepting a salary that wouldn’t cover her expenses, rather than blaming Yelp for under-paying its employees, and says Talia’s case shouldn’t be prompting a discussion about wages, but actually Talia’s situation is EXACTLY why we should be talking about wages. Stefanie says Talia shouldn’t have expected to be able to live alone on what she was taking home from a job at Yelp, and there’s a lot to unpack here. To start, in 1938, when the federal minimum wage was first written into law, it was enough to support a household of two on a single income. At its peak, in 1968, a full-time (40 hours per week) job paying the minimum wage was actually enough to support a family of three at or above the poverty line on a single income. This changed in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, and the minimum wage has been insufficient to support a family of two on a single income ever since. If any economy has reached a point where minimum wage is insufficient for a single person to live alone and support themselves, then a discussion about wages absolutely becomes necessary.

Additionally, Stefanie suggests that Talia shouldn’t be living alone in San Francisco, and should instead be living with roommates. However, given Talia’s cost of transportation into work ($5.65 each way), we can extrapolate that Talia is not living in the City of San Francisco, or even in neighboring Oakland. Talia is actually living in the outer reaches of the BART system, most likely either in the Walnut Creek/Concord area, or in the Hayward/Castro Valley area. The cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, Concord, Hayward, or Castro Valley is actually approximately equivalent to (and often below) the cost of a bedroom in shared housing in San Francisco. In fact, it is possible (albeit rarely) to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Hayward for approximately the same cost as a shared bedroom in San Francisco. This reduces Stefanie’s argument to a suggestion that she is being wasteful in paying for transportation, not that she is being wasteful in her housing expenditures. This also fails to take into account that nowhere in the Bay Area is the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment near BART (our primary and most reliable source of public transit) less than $1000 per month, and the median rent in San Francisco has risen to over $4000 per month. In fact, a quick search for available rooms for rent in San Francisco demonstrates exactly why Talia has chosen to live alone towards the end of the BART lines, rather than seeking a house-sharing solution in San Francisco itself. (Nevermind the fact that Talia probably has good reason for not wanting to live with strangers.)

So let’s do some math, shall we? If the minimum wage in San Francisco is $12.25 per hour, a worker putting in 40 hours per week is making approximately $2254 per month before taxes. Working with Talia’s stated post-tax income of approximately $8 per hour, that number shrinks to only $1472 per month. Remember what that Craigslist search looked like? Accepting the fact that a room for rent in San Francisco with a reasonable amount of access to public transportation is going to cost roughly the same as Talia’s 1-bedroom apartment rented at $1250 per month, that leaves a mere $222 per month for food, transportation, utilities, and everything else someone might need to spend money on. Put into this context, that $20 copay Talia was so concerned about makes a lot of sense, as it’s approximately 10% of her “disposable” income. Even if we assume the new normal is actually sharing a bedroom, a bunk in a shared bedroom in San Francisco goes for $800 per month, which is still more than half of Talia’s post-tax income. Houston, we have a problem.

So, how did we get here? It’s a long story, but in the interest of providing sufficient context for understanding where we are now, I’ll go over it briefly. 2007-09 saw the subprime mortgage crisis wreak havoc not just on the Finance industry, San Francisco’s primary industry at the time, but also on people who had bought homes in areas like Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton. As people outside the reach of BART lost their homes and their cars to the economic crash, they began moving back towards the urban city centers of the Bay Area, causing rent prices to climb at a slow-but-steady rate after the initial fiscal catastrophe. With the advent of the current venture capitalist-backed tech boom, rents began to skyrocket at a significantly more rapid rate as demand for housing quickly outpaced supply. Suddenly, workers outside of the tech industry were beginning to experience displacement from their homes, and starting to be driven from San Francisco altogether.

Fast forward to today. Why are people making such a big deal about Talia’s situation? It’s simple, really. For many of us, Talia and others like her are the canary in the coal mine. We’ve grown accustomed to people outside of the tech industry scraping by to survive, but seeing employees of the industry credited with causing this sharp increase in the cost of living starting to join the rest of us in being priced out is a startling development. Where the Dot Com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s certainly had an impact on the economic climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, this current boom has seen the technology industry develop into the backbone of San Francisco’s economy, and stands to do a lot of damage if (when) it collapses. Those who exist outside the industry are scraping by, and the implication that those inside the foremost industry propping up our local economy are also scraping by is indicative of impending economic ruin for us all. It’s not that Talia is the first person to struggle to make ends meet while living here, it’s that people working places like Yelp were supposed to be safe.

In essence, not only is it not at all Talia’s fault that she can’t survive here, but the fact that she can’t survive working for a multi-billion dollar company in the leading industry in the area is exactly why people are discussing poverty and wages; because if people in entry-level jobs there can’t survive, what hope do the rest of us have?

Now, one of the other things I’d like to address about Stefanie’s letter to Talia is the part where Stefanie mentions living with her mother while simultaneously insisting millennials are just too lazy to put in work and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I will never, ever shame anyone for accepting familial support: times are hard, we all do what we need to in order to survive, smoke ’em if you got ’em. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has that same support, and people (like Talia) who do not have that support (remember this?) absolutely do not deserved to be shamed for not having that safety net to rely on. Stefanie had family friends who helped her find a job paying double the minimum wage, and Talia had family friends whose role was decidedly different. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but we’re not looking at an individual issue here, we’re looking at an economic rift built on housing accessibility and income inequality. What one millennial is or is not willing to do is not actually the issue, the issue is the fiscal climate we’ve been dropped into.

Now, admittedly, it was probably a terrible idea for Talia to write a letter calling out her boss and her workplace by name, and it’s pretty unsurprising that she was let go over it. (PS: Girl, go apply for unemployment if you haven’t already! You are almost definitely eligible!) That said, the desperation that drove her to write this letter is very real, and very valid, and the conversations it is facilitating are actually extremely necessary conversations regarding both the cost of living and the valuation of labor in the Bay Area (and beyond.) Stefanie says Talia shouldn’t have such high expectations of an entry-level job, but history indicates that entry level in any field ought to at least be enough to survive on, and it is extremely evident that is not the case in the Bay Area.

Now, of course Stefanie is entitled to both her opinion, and the expression thereof. However, as someone who has never lived in the Bay Area, and especially someone who does not live here now, I venture that it would have behooved her to do at least a little research into the cost of living, economy, and history of San Francisco and the surrounding areas before launching into her screed against Talia. But I won’t dig too deeply into what that says about Stefanie’s work ethic, and I’m certainly not going to assign that same work ethic to an entire generation. Because it turns out, Stefanie is only a few months younger than I am… what a difference those months make.

Welcome to the Internet

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Perhaps you are new here. Perhaps you are new to social media entirely. Perhaps not. Regardless of the path you’ve taken to arrive, here we are. And there are some things I’d like to share with you now that you’re here: some Rules of Engagement for Social Media.

Social media can be a wonderful way to keep in touch with old friends, make new friends, and get exposure to ideas and lifestyles that differ from your own. It can be a means for sharing important information, swapping recipes, or soliciting cute cat photos. Social media has a myriad uses, and all of them involve engaging with other humans, some of whom may already be overwhelmed by the volume of interaction to which they are subject, or even beleaguered by harassment from trolls. So how can you keep from adding to this existing burden?

A great place to start is to remember that strangers on the internet do not have the same social obligations to you that your family and close friends do. You are certainly free to initiate a conversation with anyone you’d like, but if you do not have an existing relationship with the person you’re trying to engage, they do not have any real obligation to be responsive. Failure to engage with a stranger on the internet is in no way a social transgression, it is simply maintenance of one’s personal boundaries.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while social media CAN be a great place to learn new things from friends and strangers alike, no one is obligated to hold your hand through understanding these things. The people with whom you are interacting on the internet are (generally) your peers, not your professors. This means that they are not required to explain their statements, or answer questions put to them, simply because you ask. This also doesn’t mean you cannot or should not ask questions, but rather that you should understand that their time is valuable and important to them, and they don’t owe you anything.

So what should you do if you have questions about something a stranger has said on social media? Put in a little investigative work! Your first step should be to check and see what else, if anything, that person has said about the subject in question. Make sure that you’re not responding to part of a multi-piece statement as though it were a standalone comment. Look to see if they’ve posted links to pieces written on the subject, and if so, click those links and read the content.

Your next step should be to consult a search engine. Type your question into a search bar, and spend a little time doing some background reading before going back and asking questions. If, rather than asking basic questions about the subject at hand, you’re asking specific questions about details you’d like clarified, it goes a long way towards showing the person you’re asking that you cared enough to do a little legwork before asking them to put time and effort into helping you understand. Additionally, asking for a person to recommend resources to you rather than asking them to explain things outright is far more likely to elicit a positive response, as it is another line of questioning that demonstrates that you recognize that person’s time and energy as valuable. And of course, as mentioned previously, strangers still don’t owe you a response to your questions.

Another helpful hint for engaging on social media is to make sure you’re respecting the boundaries of others, and only interacting with people who are receptive. If a person asks you to leave them alone, you stand to gain nothing from pushing the issue. If a person isn’t responding to a conversation in which they are tagged, it may be polite to refrain from continuing to tag them into it. If they are interested in participating, and the conversation is public, they’ll check into it and respond accordingly when they’re ready, whether or not they’ve been tagged in each installment. In many cases, non-responsiveness is a way people indicate a disinterest in participating in a given conversation, or in engaging with a person, and respecting that unspoken boundary can go a long way towards demonstrating that you respect them as a person.

As previously mentioned, social media can be a fantastic medium for the sharing of ideas. That said, the things that people say on social media, and the thoughts that they share, are their own. If you’d like to reprint those thoughts and ideas in a different context, especially one for which you are being paid, it is a good idea to first reach out to that person and ask for permission. Taking a person’s statements out of context and sharing them with an entirely different audience than was originally intended can open that person up to a lot of harassment from others and they may not want the exposure. Rather than treating people’s public statements on social media as if they were engaged in an interview with you, reach out and ask if they’ll grant you an interview. Give them the opportunity to opt into or out of exposure, and respect the decision they make.

Social media has the potential to open doors for us all, and as long as we use it responsibly and respectfully, it can be a resource that benefits us all rather than a burden only a few must shoulder.

Cheers, and welcome to the internet!

Everyone is Wrong About Trigger Warnings.

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It seems as though every day, another thinkpiece on trigger warnings flickers across my awareness. Some of these pieces are in favor of trigger warnings, (frequently called “content warnings,” as some people find the term “trigger warnings” to be, well, triggering) while others are adamantly opposed. Some espouse the belief that people have a right not to be exposed to content they might find offensive, while others argue that content warnings “coddle” people, turning them into over-sensitive weaklings who can’t handle the world.

The biggest problem with either of these arguments is that in both cases, they’re being made by people who do not actually have triggers. As a result, both arguments rather overwhelmingly miss the point: trigger warnings aren’t about content that might make us uncomfortable, and ultimately, content warnings aren’t even about avoidance. Instead, they are meant to be a tool to help those of us with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health concerns. They’re meant to enable us to mentally and emotionally prepare before delving into content that might otherwise send us spiraling into flashbacks and anxiety attacks if we’re caught off guard.

In other words, trigger warnings (or content warnings, if you prefer), allow people like me who have experienced great trauma to prepare ourselves before diving into media that addresses scenarios similar to those we’ve experienced. They can be the difference between being sucked into a vortex of overwhelming feelings and memories, and being able to critically examine something that has caused us pain in the past and continues to impact us in the present. Content warnings can be the difference between whether triggering content is therapeutic, or just more traumatic.

It is absolutely true that in some cases, confronting triggering material may not actually be the best strategy for someone trying to overcome past trauma. In cases where the trauma is recent, for example, avoidance may in fact be the best way to proceed. Trauma is effectively a type of wound, and just like any other wound, sometimes it is necessary to allow it to heal a bit before beginning therapy to treat its lasting effects. It is also true that some wounds take longer to heal than others, based on a variety of factors including past damage, access to proper care and treatment, and the simple fact that we’re all built differently. As such, some people may be ready to confront triggering material before others are, and that is okay; we all heal at our own pace.

Critics of content warnings say that shielding people from content that might cause emotional discomfort is “harmful,” and that calling for trigger warnings focuses on shielding people from trauma, rather than helping them address it. The problem with these assertions is that they’re completely failing to grasp the point of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are not meant to shield those of us suffering from PTSD, they’re meant to be one of the many weapons we use to face our demons. They’re one of the many tools in the kit we carry on the path to healing our mental health. Critics who cannot possibly fathom the road we walk tell us we simply need to be stronger and more resilient, with no concept of how much strength and resilience we display on a daily basis.

It is, of course, entirely true that trigger warnings, like any tool, may be used improperly. It is true that they can be used in ways that are harmful. This doesn’t negate their usefulness, it just means we need to think carefully about how and when we use them. Just as we don’t ban society from using hammers simply because some people use them to break things rather than to build them, we shouldn’t decry content warnings simply because some people use them without truly understanding their purpose. Instead, we should work with those who have real triggers to develop strategies for the use of these important tools. Academics express frustration over students bringing up triggers that may or may not be “real” throughout the course of the semester, when they could easily administer a survey at the beginning of the course to determine where students have triggers, and to help those students work through the material that may trigger them. This model not only allows professors to preempt students bringing up issues later in the semester in an effort to avoid content, but also preempts students speaking for hypothetical others by instead encouraging each student to bring up any issues they may have personally. This also opens the door for dialogue with students, so that all parties involved have reasonable expectations of what exactly a content warning means in context of completing the course.

There are a myriad ways in which trigger warnings may be either harmful or beneficial, but the truth of the matter is that unless we start working with people who actually have mental health issues that necessitate them, we’re not doing anyone any favors by writing essays on the matter. And we’re certainly not helping anything by redefining and dismissing a tool based on improper uses of it.