A Prompt From The NYT

The New York Times is hiring young writers. I applied. The email I sent is below. From what I can remember (I probably should have reread it) I come off as the oldest old man that a 24 year old could possibly be.

My name is Matthew Heimiller and I’ve lived most of my life in Wauwatosa, West Allis and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I love where I’m from.

You asked, “What’s your biggest pet peeve about the way that people write about your generation?” and it’s got to be the flattening that happens. Sociological generalizations, polls and observation are one thing. Bringing that mode to individuals is a wrecking ball, even morally wrong in my opinion.

Like a lot of young people, my story is about education. In an overwhelmingly Catholic and Lutheran city, life took me to an evangelical high school where I led our robotics team to an international playoff. After this I went to the only local college that offered software engineering, one of two in the state.

Like a lot of young people, I don’t have a completed college education. 60% of us go and 40% make it to graduation. There was no money or cosigner for a second year of engineering. In the next three years I made pretty good money extending and extending my term as a software intern. This would only cement the regret I would feel about the earnings I would lose.

All that time working while falling 4 credits shy of graduation at the local state school. I wish I could have stayed in software.

Just 4 credits I can’t muster, a third consecutive unit of a foreign language, that is what’s keeping my generic Journalism, Advertising and Media Studies credential from me. It feels arbitrary, like a lot of that roughed up 20% of us, us drop outs, I feel cheated. In my heart I know I’m a double failure. They didn’t take my money, I gave it to them. They didn’t fail me, I failed to learn all the conjugations of hic, haec, hoc and that was the semester before it even mattered for graduation.

What do you see? Do you see a failure or someone trying. There are more of us. 20%! 20%! I say it into the mirror to feel better. A lot have it worse than me.

I can accept a credentialing regime. Cold, far away algorithms deciding how to sort me. I can’t accept that from a person.

On some level I get that Bob Dole could pay for his entire college with his summer job scooping ice cream and that things are different now. Even working through the school year has left me with debt that will handicap me. But I guarantee what hasn’t changed still matters. I don’t know Bob Dole. I read about him in a book. But I’m sure we share the desire to be looked in the eyes like a man. Equality, the fullness of humanity. That’s it. A man with a job was enough back then and it’s not the job or the money or the economy I want, it’s the common respect. Even a credential isn’t enough for these people so where does that leave someone without one.

We’re not obsessed with victim-hood or our own special suffering. We’re people. Is it obsession to simply recite how I got here. Is it dishonest to state a price, the price of an education, a home, or a child and admit I cannot pay it. Is it wrong to have fears? that this is the best I’ll ever do, that the peak earning years between 25 and 45 that have come for previous generations will not come for me and mine.

“We don’t build great things anymore” It hurts when you say this. Every flattening, every critical vector. Young people just aren’t anything anymore. Remember when we were something.

This isn’t going to be anywhere close to how it mathematically actually works but it’s how it feels: the old pay for things and the young build them. So who’s fault is it really for the lack of adequate capitalization when there was no investment to begin with.

I’m going to keep going. We are all going to keep going. Let us have our own good in our own way. It’s less a pet peeve, more of a admonition. We’re not different than you. Every one of us can find a people, a place, a family and a role. We care about things. We try to make a space for them, cultivate them. There’s so much more to life than any single dimension. Please don’t discard all that fills a human life for the indulgence of the hot take of the week.

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