‘Nowhere to go but up’: Millenials optimistic though they struggle with money

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Millennial Abram Williams poses for a photo recently in Williamsport.

Millennials are the hope for the 21st century.

Increasingly, they are taking up the work of their parents and grandparents, but, perhaps more importantly, learning new and different skills and assuming places in workplaces that haven’t before existed.

They are entering a world of increasing uncertainty and chaos.

Rapidly changing technology has given them access to more information and opportunities.

Meanwhile, there exist the nagging stereotypes that hound this generation of young people.

Sure, there are the millennials who live with their parents well into their adult years, thanks to crushing college debt and few good-paying job opportunities, and perhaps it’s easy to see why some of them see themselves with a less than bright future in a seemingly unpredictable and unstable world.

Statistics point to a generation hesitant to commit to relationships with fewer people getting married or, at least, holding off on matrimony until they are older.

We set out in search of a handful of these millennials, these folks from their early 20s to mid 30s. Who are they and what are they doing with their lives? Perhaps more importantly, what do they hope for the future?

Kim Erdman might be described as the smalltown girl embracing the big city. These days, the Northumberland County native is an assistant professor and clinical coordinator of dental hygiene at Baltimore City College in Maryland.

In hindsight, she’s a bit surprised to find herself where she is.

“When I was in college, I probably thought by 30 I would be married and have kids, maybe working part time,” she said. “I definitely never thought I would be where I was. I never thought I would be living outside of central Pennsylvania. I never thought I’d be teaching professional education.”

Growing up in tiny Herndon, population 342, she admitted to having a “small-town perspective” on life.

After high school, she eyed college and initially thought she would study chemistry.

She ended up going to Pennsylvania College of Technology for dental hygiene.

“I picked dental hygiene for every wrong reason you can think of,” she said. “I thought it was a good way to make a good wage.”

She liked the idea of working stable work hours. She had a boyfriend she figured would eventually become her husband, but the relationship didn’t work out.

While in college, she considered a future in patient education.

“I thought I would like to teach other dental hygienists,” she said. “I kind of knew I was going to go into education.”

After college, she had apprehensions about moving to the big city to work. She recalled her shock over learning how high the rental costs were in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area.

However, she did move, then decided to stay, and seems to have no regrets. She has made a life far from home.

“I am able to live comfortably and pay for my debts. I think that’s unusual,” she said. “Some of my friends have terrible amounts of credit card debt.”

She thinks back on what her parents often told her: If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.

Erdman is optimistic about the future, working toward a doctorate degree. She feels there are plenty of opportunities in her career field.

As for marriage, that’s something that may happen down the road.

“I think in the future, marriage will be there. I think there is still plenty of time for that,” she said.

Christopher Cizek is optimistic too. Just 22, he has a job and is in a relationship with a woman he plans to marry.

“I am really excited about the future,” he said. “I feel there is nowhere to go but up.”

The 2017 Lycoming College graduate majored in poetry and digital filmmaking with a minor in English literature.

“I hope to write poetry professionally,” he said.

A native of Galeton, he’s employed with Sage Age Strategies, of Montoursville, as a quality assurance specialist. Among his duties is proofreading.

“I really feel passionate about their mission that appeals to seniors to better their lives,” he said. “It’s a very good stepping stone. It’s great to work there, but I hope to advance in the company.”

He seems patient, rather than restless. He said he’s happy, even content, while adding, “but I still have the drive to go further.”

The stereotype hounding millennials that they avoid commitment doesn’t seem to fit Cizek.

He and his girlfriend have been together since high school. They went ahead and got engaged last year with a wedding date set for next year.

“It doesn’t feel weird,” he said. “A lot of my friends are either looking or in semi-long-term relationships.”

Like many millennials, he faces college loan debts but seems to take it in stride.

“A lot of my friends are dealing with pretty hefty numbers (too),” he said. “I look at it as I have this debt, and I am going to pay it off. I am not going to let it get me down.”

Some people want to change the world, or at the very least, make a small difference or contribution.

Abram Williams, of Antes Fort, may well be one such person.

Like many young people, he’s working one job with his sights on something else.

The Lock Haven University graduate wants to start an art therapy community center to help people with their addictions.

“Everybody wants to change the world but no one wants to change the toilet paper roll,” he said. “No one wants to stay in their hometowns and change things.”

Williams sees himself pursuing his dream in central Pennsylvania. Right now, he works for a local advertising firm as a verifier, and remains optimistic about the future.

But that’s OK. He believes in hard work.

“Ever since age 14, I’ve had a job, from custodian to working on a garbage truck,” he said.

Williams has even hosted concerts.

He doesn’t count himself among the pessimistic millennials. But he understands why many of them are less than hopeful, given what’s happening in the world with school shootings and other horrific events.

His generation has grown up with internet technology and the rapid proliferation of information, making it difficult to miss any of the bad news.

But he believes that pessimism can be a means of missing out on opportunities.

“They say millennials are lazy and entitled. I understand why people say that, from some aspects,” he said.

It’s not a belief with which he agrees.

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign got him excited about changing the world.

“It gave me hope that people could make a difference,” he said.

Williams is single for now but hopes some day to get married and have children.

Meanwhile, his dream of doing something interesting and important remains alive.

“I am only 26. It’s definitely still on the table,” he said. “In 10 years, I really hope to be on the way for making a footprint for myself. I really hope in 10 years, I’m not sitting in a cubicle. I hope to at least have a career.”

Dalaney Vartenisian feels very fortunate to have a job she wants.

The 2017 Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate is working in her field of study as a front-end web developer for a small marketing agency.

“I love it,” she said. “I am very happy that I was able to get a job very quickly.”

She and her college friends who, like her, also studied web and interactive media, were able to find good jobs too.

Growing up in Canton, she was, in her words, “always drawn to computers.”

But money was not the motivating factor for a career choice.

“I think I would much rather be fulfilled with what I’m doing,” she said.

Vartenisian commutes to her job in Lancaster from York, where she shares an apartment with two other people.

Coming from what she described as a “poor family,” she was able to obtain scholarships and grants to pay for college, but, like many millennials, she faces mounting school debt.

“A lot of my friends are really drowning in student debt,” she said.

At 23, she feels more focused on her job than anything.

“I’m not pessimistic about relationships,” she said. “I think marriage will be in the future for me. It’s not my main objective right now.”

Jim Riedel is another millennial happy in his career.

“I have been very fortunate to do something I really love, day in and day out,” said Riedel, a graduate of Pennsylvania College of Technology in automotive technology management.

Riedel, 32, is regional product training manager for Subaru of America in New Jersey, a company he has been with for the past decade.

“When I was in high school, I kind of got into cars from a hobby standpoint,” he said. “I wanted to work in new car design. A guidance counselor suggested mechanical engineering. That was not for me. Now I am teaching. I get to sing the praises of cars.”

Riedel said he’s very happy working for a large corporation and drawing a good income.

“I think it is very good job security,” he said.

He said he likes the nature of the work and having a say in how things are done.

Overall, he feels millennials, himself included, are more interested in job fulfillment than making lots of money.

As a husband, father and homeowner, with a good-paying job, he conceded he’s perhaps not a typical millennial.

“My wife and I dated six or seven years before we got married,” he said.

Like him, she works in product management. For a time, they both embraced what he called “the millennial mindset,” living apart and focusing on their careers.

Their only child was born last year.

Jahd Burns recalled his college years as a time of uncertainty.

“In college I changed my major a few times. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” he said.

He went to the University of Pittsburgh for three years before dropping out and eventually finishing a degree in business administration at Lock Haven University.

These days, Burns, 28, is employed as an outreach coordinator. His work with county agencies involves helping people with disabilities get assistance.

“I enjoy my work,” he said. “I think there is more I want out of work.”

It was not the type of job he envisioned for himself. He had hoped for something more business related, although his job does offer him some opportunities along those lines.

He said making money is not the most important aspect of a job.

“The people you work with are important. I really do prefer organizations that value your input,” he said.

Most people he knows don’t stay in a job more than two or three years, often looking elsewhere for places where they can find career advancement.

Burns, a Montgomery Area High School graduate, lives in Williamsport but has considered moving.

“I did concentrate on international business in college,” he said. “(But) There are not a lot of opportunities for that around here.”

He said he’s still not entirely sure what he wants to do but remains optimistic.

“I think you really have to fight for opportunities,” he said.

He feels fortunate to have a college degree, noting that the world of work can be more difficult for people who lack one. Many people he knows with degrees have moved out of the local area for better opportunities.

Like many millennials, he has faced down staggering college loans. At one point, he was working 80 hours a week and living with his parents.

“Almost everyone I know has significant debt,” he said. “I think that holds back a lot of people.”

Burns has been in relationships but has no plans to get married.

“It seems like most people stay in relationships a long time before getting married,” he said.