Exploring nuance in the Talia Jane / Yelp-Eat24 drama

Recently, Talia Jane's An Open Letter To My CEO post on Medium has stirred a lot of emotions on the blogosphere (in other Medium posts, in the Medium comments on her original post) and on Twitter.

There seems to be a pretty sharp divide in how people react to the piece. On the one side, you have the "You're an entitled Millennial who made bad choices, and now you're whining? When I was your age, I worked five jobs and walked up hill both ways to work. Deal with it!" reaction. On the other side, you have the "This is absolutely horrible. I can't believe you went through this. Let me donate to your right away" reaction. And I haven't seen a lot of nuance in the reactions yet.

Just as with Angry Asian Trademarks from last year, I'm really trying to see both sides of the issue.

The English Major

Some of the commentary I've read on Ms. Jane's piece has been along the lines of "Well, you were an English major. You're an idiot if you think you can live off of that. Why didn't you pick a more practical major?" Thing is—there is nothing wrong with majoring in something impractical. Some of the best colleges are liberal arts schools in which the whole point is to major in something impractical. I went to a liberal arts school and majored in English. I didn't expect to make a lot of money. Very few English majors do. I haven't even seen Avenue Q, but I know of What do you Do with a B.A. in English?/ It Sucks to be Me, and I'm not the only one.

I ended up with an English major planning to be a teacher. I knew other English majors who wanted to go into academia or publishing or fiction-writing or journalism. None of those people imagined that being an English major would lead to raking in the big bucks. We did, however, want a living wage. We wanted to be able to pay our rent and eat food. There is (and should be) a middle ground between millionaire status and abject poverty.

Housing and Rent

The primary criticisms of Jane's piece with regard to housing are two-fold:

  1. She wants to move to San Francisco to be close to her dad (since we’ve never gotten to have much of a relationship), but she can't live with him to save money?
  2. She pays $1245 for an apartment far away from work, because that's the cheapest apartment she can get that's the closest (even though it's far from work), but there's no indication that she's sharing the apartment with roommates to save on rent.

Giving Ms. Jane the benefit of the doubt as much as I can, it's very possible that, because she and her dad haven't had much of a relationship, she didn't feel super comfortable asking to stay with him. I think the idea was that previously they didn't have much of a relationship, but her hope was that by living nearby she could foster one with him. Also, she says she wants to be close to her dad, but we don't know where exactly in the Bay Area her dad lives. If he lives in Milpitas, Danville, or Petaluma, then living with him doesn't really help her commute to San Francisco easily/feasibly.

The roommate thing seems to be a far more legitimate criticism. I get why you might not want to live with a roommate, but if you're getting paid minimum wage in San Francisco, sharing housing seems the absolute obvious thing to do to reduce rent. Instead of paying $1245 to live far away, Ms. Jane could be paying $900 to rent a room in a nice house with three or four other people. It really isn't clear from her piece why she didn't at least consider that possibility before rejecting it.

That's a Lot of Rice

In her piece, Ms. Jane says

I haven’t bought groceries since I started this job. Not because I’m lazy, but because I got this ten pound bag of rice before I moved here and my meals at home (including the one I’m having as I write this) consist, by and large, of that. Because I can’t afford to buy groceries. Bread is a luxury to me, even though you’ve got a whole fridge full of it on the 8th floor.
In response, someone has created a site called "That's a Lot of Rice" - Talia Jane debunked that shows photos from Ms. Jane's Instagram account (these photos were also cross-posted on her Twitter account) that involve expensive meals, elaborately home-cooked meals or baked goods, and just generally expensive random stuff.

I had mixed feelings about the debunking site. On the one hand, I get it. She's making it sound as if she's starving and has been living on rice alone. Maybe she's a fraud.

At the same time, there are a few things to consider here:

  • The shaming "See what pictures of food you posted?" exposé reminds me a bit of the extra scrutiny people get when using food stamps for luxury items. The thing is—people are human. Even when you're poor, you want to indulge every now and then. Did you read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and think Charlie was irresponsible for wasting money on an unhealthy-for-him chocolate bar? You also have to consider that people who are stressed out about money don't always make the best decisions. It's far easier to be prudent about your spending, ironically, when you don't have as strong a need to be prudent.
  • We don't know the exact context of these photos. In the social media age we live in now, there's a strong pressure (I believe especially among younger folks) to make it seem in your social media presence that you're always doing fun things or living a rich (doesn't have to be money) experience. It's honestly kind of a downer to post to your Instagram every day "Another serving from my ten-pound bag of rice. Yum!" Maybe the Lush product was an in-store sample. Maybe the baking was part of a baking party with friends. Maybe a richer friend of hers (who works as a software engineer or technical writer) treated her to a nice breakfast, which she usually doesn't get.
  • She says her meals at home consist, by and large, of [rice]. She didn't say "I exclusively eat rice and absolutely nothing else. When friends want to be nice and treat me to a meal, I always refuse, saying 'No, I must appear dirt poor at all times!'"

Sure, I think in her actual piece, she should have put more nuance in (instead of me, a total stranger, having to fill in the blanks with nuance after the fact). Again, if you're worried about money, feeling stressed out about it, and really angry... I don't think you're going to go for nuance. She may have, in fact, exaggerated. That doesn't mean she is a total fraud necessarily.

CVS

One story Ms. Jane recounts involves going to a CVS and an employee overhearing a conversation of hers and, unsolicited, giving her $6 of his own money. Some people have chided her for being condescending in consider the CVS employee beneath her somehow. I read the passage over again, and I'm not seeing that at all.

This is how she concludes that paragraph:

Did you know that after getting hired back in August, I’m still being trained for the same position I’ve got? But Marcus at CVS has six dollars in his wallet, and I’m picking up coins on the street trying to figure out how I’ll be able to pay him back.
Not seeing the condescension there.

Health/Dental Benefits and Commute

Some people have criticized Ms. Lane for complaining, even though she had full health coverage at Yelp (except for $20 co-pays) or for not knowing that her company probably had some kind of pre-tax commuter program for BART.

On this front, I'm a bit more on her side. It's awful that many workers in the U.S. have not-so-great (but technically still ACA-compliant) coverage for healthcare at their workplaces. To imply that means she should be grateful for decent coverage even though she's poor... I don't buy that. (Of course, I'm also a bleeding-heart liberal who believes that America should have single-payer health care instead of merely "Obamacare.")

And I remember being 25 and have very little money. I didn't fully understand pre-tax stuff and how it could benefit me and my spouse. I didn't get that money I was putting aside was money I would be spending anyway, and I would actually (with flexible spending or with pre-tax commuter) end up spending less from my paycheck. All I could think (and I'm guessing Ms. Lane thought the same thing) was "My paycheck is already so small—you want me to take more out of it before it hits my checking account?"

Per hour after taxes?

I've read some criticisms of Ms. Lane's piece that point to her saying I make $8.15 an hour after taxes as disingenuous, because it's making it sound as if she's making less than she really was (the pre-tax minimum wage of $12.25/hour). The context in which it comes up, though, is in talking about how much she has to spend on transportation and gas/electric. When you have to spend money on actual items, you are most likely focusing on the spending relative to the amount that's in your checking account—that is, your post-tax (take-home) pay.

PayPal, Venmo, Square Cash

I'm not sure what to think on the plea for donations at the end of her post. Before she wrote the post, she didn't know she'd be fired from Yelp. The responses to her post seem to indicate that at least some people donated to her. I don't know how many people donated or how much they each donated on average. Now that she's lost her job, even with a few thousand dollars, that'll probably last her a month or so.

I'm not tripping too much on the donation front. No one is coercing you into donating. I did not donate to her, I don't plan to, and I don't feel pressured to. She can certainly ask.

Career Impatience and Millennial "Entitlement"?

Up until this point, I may be coming across as a Talia Jane apologist. I tend to want to empathize before judging. This bit I just don't get, though:

I felt it was fair that I start out working in the customer support section of Yelp/Eat24 before I’d be qualified to transfer to media. Then, after I had moved and got firmly stuck in this apartment with this debt, I was told I’d have to work in support for an entire year before I would be able to move to a different department.
[Emphasis not added]

I'm scratching my head on this one, along with the rest of the peanut gallery. You took a customer support job (the kind of job in which you get hired the same day you interview), and you expected to be transferred to another department in less than a year? Maybe I'm just old school, but I think you generally put in your dues when you're in your early and mid twenties before you start zipping up and around career-wise, unless you happen to be a unicorn-successful tech entrepreneur.

I certainly don't judge Millennials as a whole. Most Millennials I've worked with have been hard-working and level-headed. At the same time, I can't think of any Gen X'er friends (or former co-workers) who, at 25, were appalled at having to fetch coffee or make photocopies (or do customer support) for more than a year before moving on to something more interesting career-wise.

I'm not a curmudgeon, though. I do think there is a balance to be had. If we can get to a point where people's lives can be more rewarding, we shouldn't make people's lives intentionally difficult just because life was difficult for us when we were younger. At the same time, nobody should expect and demand that life be less difficult when those who came before didn't get to magically jump ahead.

Talia Jane is not representative of Millennials or the attitudes (yes, plural) they possess. There is definitely some entitlement in the piece, and I do think that's where a lot of the over-the-top backlash is coming from... maybe slightly justified but still over the top.

Larger issues about affordability and a living wage

Some people have suggested this may be less about Ms. Jane's specific case and more about Bay Area (lack of) affordability in general. I don't think so. That is a real problem. Middle-class and working-class people (and—I hate to say it—even relatively well-off tech workers) are struggling to keep up with the rents and housing prices in the Bay Area. But those real debates are happening in the streets, at dinner conversations, in letters to The San Francisco Chronicle, on Twitter and Facebook. Talia Jane's piece doesn't really bring a whole lot more to it. We all know there isn't enough housing and that minimum wage is tough to live on in San Francisco.

What's next for Talia Jane?

If I were Talia, I'd take some of the criticism to heart (Yes, I knew I wouldn't be paid a lot, and yes, I know I signed a lease for an apartment I couldn't afford, and I should have gotten a roommate), and I'd be a bit nervous (I just got fired. Who's going to hire me again?), but I'd also be excited. If her goal was to get more Twitter followers, she certainly got them. You can call her a troll if you want to be uber-cynical about it, but she certainly got attention, and—since she wants to be a writer—now would be the perfect time to strategize about how to leverage all this attention into an actual career.

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