“It’s really time for y’all to settle down” is unsolicited advice I hear from older family members every three months or so. Generally kind, loving people — many of them boomers — feel a need to voice an opinion born of their own frustrations about my lifestyle, which seems so different from their own.
I am in my mid-30s. I am an Xennial, or so it has been dubbed. To the older generation, my husband and I seem flakey, uninterested in the lives they created in order to succeed. The often too-easy label of “slacker” gets applied to Gen X cuspers like myself. But the truth is, by the time we reached the path the older generation had prepared for us, it was nothing but a sinkhole. We didn’t have much choice in the matter of stability. Especially as Black folks.
It’s not like my parents didn’t do their best in preparing me for adulthood. They taught me how to walk into a business and offer my résumé, or make a phone call and charm my way in. “I received every job I ever interviewed for,” my father used to tell me. This was not him boasting, but believing that I could do the same. My parents even armed me with a name others would assume belonged to a white man, hoping it would help me bypass racial discrimination and get me an interview.
I was also told to buy a starter home and sell it to create wealth and give our (assumed) kids a future. Housing discrimination hadn’t allowed Black boomers that particular type of entrepreneurship, even if they were the first generation to buy homes. My parents assumed we could do better.
But unlike my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, I do not own a first or a forever home — I never have. My husband and I have relocated to three different cities in 10 years. We have learned that we must follow the jobs. We do not have a retirement fund or a 401K. Both my father and father-in-law have celebrated more than 30 years of working in one company. My husband and I have never been in one company for more than four.
And then, in 2008, our worlds changed further. When we talk about what generation is defined by the recession, we often talk about millennials graduating from college and entering a dismal job market. But for those of us who were in our mid-20s to early 30s in 2008, we were already in the marketplace as it crashed around us. And we had to adjust, quickly.
In the years following the crash, companies were letting workers go en masse. Major corporations were on the brink of going under. Those of us with a degree discovered the rules had changed. A degree preference was followed by requirements of what that degree needed to be: business management, human services, online journalism (not print journalism), digital communications (rather than general communications). At the same time, job applications shifted to emails with demands to never call, let alone walk into the office where you applied.
I remember the number of foreclosures that devastated Gen X, especially in the Black community. Folks who just bought their starter home were facing foreclosure. Friends who hoped to receive promotions and leadership development were instead let go and forced to take any job that would put food on the table. The American Dream, as it were, was unraveling under their feet. It is a particular grief of having everything ripped away. A grieving that deserved more time and attention than it has received.
My husband, who is an attorney, had to delay his career path to become a school guidance counselor. We waited so long to have a child, I think our families wondered if I was unable to have children. Far from the assumption of rejecting family values, we were all too aware of the great responsibilities that come with parenthood.
Even if we were ready mentally and emotionally, we knew the financial undertaking was at least momentarily out of our reach. Because we lived on credit cards during the recession and didn’t have a good job to pay off student loans right out of college and law school, we are still drowning in debt. We move every couple of years because the rent keeps rising, and we must seek more affordable options. And my story is far from a worst-case scenario.
At the height of the recession, our families understood why we needed to relocate away from our support system in order to take jobs that could pay our rent. As is common for Black families, there was no inherited wealth to draw on; helping hands and a few hundred dollars was all the support our parents could offer. And we were grateful.
But 10 years following the recession, the generation who raised us is less eager to understand how that recession still impacts us. Because the economy has, in many ways, gotten better. The national story is one of recovery. But for many of us, it’s the impact of the recession that may never end, and perhaps will only ever be understood by a generation and a half.
The stereotypes of Gen X and Xennials don’t ring true to me, since so many of them ignore the particular experiences of Black families. Far from slacking, we are scrappy. We work hard, multiple jobs, jobs we hate. We then come home and turn our hobbies into side hustles, hoping one day it will be our only hustle. We aren’t using the internet as entertainment or an escape. We network online, building a foundation for our careers.
Without inheritances or family savings to keep us afloat, we have recreated stability in a world that is unstable. We turned friends into family. We have accepted debt as a part of our lives. We have made peace with possibly never being homeowners. We have no expectations of being able to retire. In some ways, Black Xennials are defining our own American Dream as generations before us have had to do.
It would be nice if other generations noticed our resiliency. Our creative endeavors. Our platforms and social media and art and multiple jobs as evidence of our perseverance. But even if it’s never seen that way, we will know we are doing the best we can to create lives we can love.
Austin Channing Brown is the author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness and executive producer of the video series The Next Question.