The Yelp Open Letter Makes Me Glad Social Media Arrived After I No Longer Knew Everything
In 2000, I worked for a startup. The name doesn’t matter – like most startups, it didn’t make it. The important thing, for the purposes of our story, is that I was a recent grad, awe-inspiringly entitled, fairly poor, and perhaps not very good at my job yet. The only thing I had going for me was that there was no social media, so there was no way for me to ruin my reputation with more than, say, three people. In this, I was much more fortunate than Talia Jane, the recently terminated Yelp/Eat24 employee. Jane’s open letter to her CEO, which she published on Medium a few days ago, ignited the kind of internet firestorm that’s generally reserved these days for arguing about Bernie Bros or Donald Trump. The question, of course, is what to make of her letter and its aftermath. Is she an entitled whippersnapper who doesn’t know how to sacrifice, or a voice of her generation pointing out systemic unfairness … and getting punished for it?
(Photo Credit: Rosaura Ochoa/Flickr)
My own initial reaction to this story had two parts:
1. Shut it, entitled Millennial.
2. Man, I’m glad the social media-enabled news cycle didn’t exist back when I knew everything.
I assumed my response was at least somewhat based on my age. As a crabby old Gen Xer, it’s easy to say that others should pay their dues, when my own are so far in the rear-view.
But when I took to social media to see how others felt about it, I found a wide range of reactions from people of all ages. While some Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were dismissive, others were sympathetic. Many Millennials brought up the challenge of graduating with a degree that was supposed act as a ticket to success, only to find low-paying jobs that don’t cover the bills, but others said she needed to pay her dues. Most people of all ages agreed that it was a bad idea for her put her complaints in an open letter – but not those who felt talking about this will draw attention to issues of income inequality.
In short, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s dig in.
Perspective No. 1: It’s important to live within your means, even if those means are limited.
Amanda, Author, Gen X:
I have multiple reactions to this. I had the same “give me a break” reaction you did – just because you can write and post an open letter on the internet doesn’t mean you should. But I also wondered about the employee’s inability to plan ahead and budget. I’m by no means blaming her for not being able to buy food, but I do think if you know your salary is X dollars, your take-home pay is X and your rent, groceries and utilities will cost X, it’s important to do the basic math to see if you will at least break even before you take a job and rent an apartment.
Molly, Freelancer, Gen X:
My reaction was that I don’t understand what the problem is. Yelp didn’t lie about the salary or job condition and she’s getting full benefits. Plus she has a car (seriously?) and no roommates. What was she expecting to get out of this open letter other than to get fired? Then my conspiracy theory side decided the whole thing was fake, because everything on the internet is fake.
Shirlie, IT Manager, Baby Boomer:
Maybe I’m related to the Grinch, because I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her. Yes, the cost of anything in SF is absurdly high. But it is what it is. All it would have taken is basic math to figure out she couldn’t make ends meet. Instead of finding a way to reduce costs, she chose to blame her employer. Nobody wins in the blame game.
Perspective No. 2: There’s something to be said for paying dues.
Kelsey, Currently Unemployed, Millennial:
I have mixed emotions about this. First off … I can totally relate to the bitter feelings of not being able to find a job/being underpaid after you supposedly did everything you were supposed to in order to be successful in life. Go to college, make good grades, network, get a degree, etc. I felt like if I went to college then everything would fall into place for me afterwards. Obvi a job wouldn’t be handed to be on a silver platter but I thought the process would be simpler having a degree. That’s not the case. And yes … it sucks.
But at the same time I feel like because we were raised to believe everything will work out if you go to college, our generation has developed this “instant gratification” attitude. Or the attitude that we are entitled to something because we did what we were told. She doesn’t know what her boss came from … yeah, he may be rich now, but do you know how he grew up? Do you know if he struggled as you are? Did he go days starving while trying to get this company up and running? Yes, some people get lucky and get into a successful position right away. But I think most people have busted their asses in order to get there. I totally understand where she is coming from, but I don’t think she should put blame on her boss.
Larry, Small Business Owner, Baby Boomer:
Are wages for entry-level jobs too low, especially in cities with a high cost of living? Sure. But the larger problem for this woman seems to be that she made unsupportable choices based on unrealistic expectations. Things have always been tough for young people starting out. They certainly were for me when I left home at 18 with no financial support from my single mother who was working her way through nursing school at the time and had all she could manage to care for herself and my younger sister. But whatever your situation, you have to look at the realities and make decisions based on what you can afford, and then do the work needed to move toward your goals. ‘Twas ever thus.
Anonymous, Editor, Gen X:
I can’t even imagine posting anything like that. I hate saying it’s a Millennial thing, since not all Millennials, etc. But man. To expect to be promoted within a year of being at a job, and a first job nonetheless. And to a department that has nothing to do with yours. That doesn’t even happen with people who have been in the workforce for years. Plus, there are so many ways to save money. Get a roommate. Or two. Get a second job. Get a retail job that would potentially pay more and allow you to go on interviews.
I mean, we all did it. And we are the most specialest flowers of them all. I lived in NY during the “bust” part of the boom and bust era. I had roommates. Sometimes, I had two roommates. I had two jobs. And I worked hard. I worked with horrible people. I worked at companies that didn’t provide snacks. There are a lot of ways to get to the point you want to get to without asking for donations and without insulting the company you work for online. That is just bad form. It also makes you undesirable to companies that might want to hire you in the future. Should Yelp have fired her? No. Should she have posted this missive online? Also no.
Melissa, Tech Industry, Millennial:
I lost it at “if you followed me on Twitter, you’d know I already make memes and funny jokes about food.” As if that qualified her for a job in the media dept. There’s a really great (bad?) movie on Netflix called Adult World with Emma Roberts and John Cusack (as the comic relief) that reminds me of what this girl would be like in real life. That’s not to say this girl is without her struggles, and I sympathize, but asking a bunch of sarcastic, rhetorical questions in an open letter to your boss and then giving people your PayPal to give you money when you get fired … is just beyond.
Christian, Support Manager, Gen X:
They wanted to move out of the position they were hired for in under one year? I would be highly displeased if I hired someone and then learned they wanted to be up and out in under one year. The first three months at a new position is mostly learning and sometimes that learning period is much longer. That would give the company at most a few months of effective work, which is the part they really hire/pay you for.
This is not a poverty case. They were hired into an entry-level position and it is what it is. It’s not like they didn’t know their salary before accepting the position.
Also, they may want to consider a roommate.
Perspective No. 3: But, the system is definitely unfair.
Jenn, Writer, Gen X:
I found it interesting that most of the comments I saw were calling her dumb or telling her to move or otherwise saying she should take responsibility for her life. But when the CEO blames the problem solely on the high cost of living in the Bay Area, no one seems to bat an eye. If his company employs people in the Bay Area, doesn’t that company have some responsibility to pay their employees enough to live there? Why is she stupid for thinking her pay would be enough to live off of, but he’s not a rapacious glutton for blaming the problem on the area rather than taking steps to help solve the problem?
Lisa, PR Professional, Millennial:
I remember going through something similar, but it wasn’t as bad because I didn’t live in SF during such a crazy time. A lot of people thought it was whining, but I believe she is raising some interesting points on the cost of living in the Valley and working to just pay the rent. That is how I interpreted it.
I also think it’s interesting that some people mentioned having to go through this, yet demonstrated no empathy. She’s a young kid. What she did took guts. What progress would this world make if we all kept quiet?? I also think a LOT of responses are totally out of touch with what’s happening in the Valley in terms of rent costs. “Get a roommate.” If you look at Craigslist, apartments with roommates are still $1K at least. I know of a VP who commutes 1.5 hours each way because the rent is so nuts.
Millennial here! A little afraid of the wrath of the Gen Xs and Boomers above, but I wonder what exactly we’re being accused of when we’re accused of being entitled. Entitled to an affordable education? Independence? A living wage? Should we not be arguing for these things?
The picture that I feel like many conjure when thinking about Millennials is … an upper-middle class whiner who always got a trophy and whose parents would swoop in to help them if needed. But it’s silly to think of the whole generation that way. Many of my colleagues have children or ailing parents or any host of real-people dependents and responsibilities and they too are dealing with low wages, high costs of living, and education costs that are absurd (so many of my contemporaries are starting out with tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt).
The young woman in this article may not be a perfect spokesperson for us, and I’m not shocked she lost her job, but I think those criticizing the folks who are saying that they are drowning in debt and expenses at the hands of wealthy corporations are punching down when they could be punching up.
Nicole, Criminologist, Gen X:
I was mixed in my reactions. On the one hand, she does sound horribly naive. On the other, she does raise some interesting questions. Like, how is it that a full-time job at minimum-wage plus 40 weekly hours of OT completely unable to allow a person to live in a studio in a middling neighborhood 30 miles from a city center? SF has so many jobs but not enough housing, causing a massive real estate bloat; should companies take that into account in salaries or HQ locating? Wouldn’t you, as a CEO, be at least a little concerned that your employees have to live like this girl described?
I just think about what our parents were able to accomplish on what amounted proportionally to a minimum-wage-or-slightly-above salary. Mine bought a house. On ONE of those salaries.
Meghan, Gen X:
As someone who is in my second career now, my initial response was that actions have consequences. BUT I understand her motivation to put a face and name to the very real problem of working people, especially in the Bay Area. The founders live in palatial compounds and their employees have to choose between heat and paying rent. Telling some to “just move” doesn’t address the issue at the heart of her letter. Yelp needs employees. Employees need to eat and have a safe place to live. She would have been better served by trying to unionize.
Kayla, UX Researcher / Research Analyst for PayScale, Millennial:
I’m going to go against the grain here and suggest that this letter is the symptom of a much larger problem and a last-resort cry for help.
She knew that there was a strong chance she’d get fired if she posted it, which means she’s at her breaking point. She’s one of the many Millennials that were promised since childhood that they would have great careers if they went to college, only to end up underemployed in a job that someone without a degree could probably do (and pays like it). If she’s eating rice for every meal and picking up pennies off the street, then she’s probably living somewhere around the poverty line. I can’t imagine the sheer amount of stress she must be under when she can barely eat or pay the fare to get to work.
Is this letter steeped in entitlement? Sure. Asking for more money because you need it and not because your skillset makes you worth it is a faux pas and a terrible negotiation tactic. But do I understand where she’s coming from? Absolutely. That someone with a bachelor’s degree can’t find a job that pays a living wage is a generation-wide problem that needs to be addressed at a systemic level.
I want to stress that this isn’t just happening to her— PayScale estimates that 22 million Americans are underemployed. And I don’t think that it’s unexpected for one to finally break ranks and start talking about what a raw deal that is, with all the gory details left uncensored. Despite being a faux pas, this kind of letter might be what it takes to humanize the underemployment issue — give it a face, a name, and a daily reality — and start a shift in the dialogue.
Matt, Musician, Millennial:
Super grateful for folks willing to put their jobs on the line to publish something like this publicly. It sounds like she knew the risks and didn’t have much to lose (though I doubt she anticipated how difficult it’ll be to find a new job with that on her Google record). We’re going to see more of this.
Perspective No. 4: It’s not enough to be right – you also have to express yourself in a way that can be heard.
Alida, Marketing, Gen X:
This was never going to end well for her. I’m also thinking about how she should move home/get more roommates/whatever, but then I need to recognize my own privilege. When I was just starting out and struggling financially, I had my parents to fall back on. So when I lost my job in the economy bust in 2008, they helped me pay rent. Not everyone has that and I shouldn’t assume they do.
BUT. I think her issue is more with the housing in SF than with her employer. I know there are groups lobbying for affordable housing, etc. Join those. Take it to the city.
And maybe don’t bite the hand that’s feeding you, even if you feel like you’re only eating scraps. Because she didn’t sound like she was able to accrue a safety net within her savings at the wage she was earning, so now she’s crowdfunding to make rent. This is an expensive lesson in choosing your time/place/venue.
And I want her to get off my lawn.
Ilisa, Attorney, Gen X:
I think it’s really unfortunate that she squandered an opportunity to highlight the incredible burdens of income inequality in big cities by addressing it in such a self-absorbed, entitled way – like it’s a violation of her human rights not to have a fulfilling career right out of school with her English Lit degree and to have pay (horrors!) copays for her full insurance benefits.
She could have focused more on the fact that she and her co-workers aren’t making even a subsistence wage much less a living wage. She could have used social media to create a dialogue with Yelp employees about their living conditions (which would have been protected speech to boot), or hey, she could have tried doing this offline, talking to co-workers and managers and trying to effect change rather than just snottily trying to publicly embarrass Yelp. In short, if she’d done anything to appear like she was looking to constructively solve a serious social problem instead of going on a big whiny rant, I think we’d all have a lot more sympathy for her.
Perspective No. 5: There’s no such thing as “generational” behavior.
Sandra, Freelance Writer, Gen X:
I don’t really know why it’s a generation-versus-generation issue. I knew plenty of entitled whiners when I was young. I know plenty of entitled whiners now, some older, younger, and the same age as I. I think the person writing the letter was unrealistic, both in her expectations for how jobs work and for her expectations about the way to treat the people paying her. But I don’t think that makes her representative of any particular problem with her age group.
Note: While there’s some debate about when each generation stops and starts, for the purposes of this piece, they’re defined as: Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964); Gen X (born 1965 – 1981); Millennials (born 1982 – 2002).
Tell Us What You Think
What’s your take on this: is it bad form to trash-talk your boss under any circumstances, or will this story bring much-needed attention to social issues like income inequality? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.