“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.” This absurd image is the reader’s first introduction to Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Metamorphosis.” Written in 1912 and published in 1915, it is his longest and most famous work. Over the course of its three parts, the story follows Gregor as he tries to navigate the world and his personal relationships while in the form of a giant bug.
I have heard a lot about Kafka’s work in the past and was afraid that when I finally got around to reading “The Metamorphosis” it wouldn’t live up to its praise. Fortunately, it was an extraordinary read and one that I feel my generation would be able to identify with.
To clarify, the story begins with the main character, Gregor, waking up in the body of a six-foot-tall cockroach. However, rather than panicking or, I don’t know, showing any signs that this might not be a normal occurrence, he immediately begins to worry about how he will get to work. He is the sole provider for his mother, father and younger sister, and he feels the pressure bearing down around him as soon as he realizes he is already late for his train into town.
I have often seen this work analyzed as a criticism of capitalism. This is, undoubtedly, a valid interpretation, as Gregor’s isolation and dehumanization are driven by his inability to provide financially for his family. Before his transformation, he was the man of the house, providing for his family and repaying their debts. He paid for their roomy apartment, and no one else had to work in order to make ends meet. He was unhappy in his career and completely isolated from anyone outside of his immediate family, but he was granted some pride in the way he provided financially for his loved ones.
However, as soon as he requires more care than he is monetarily worth, as soon as his ability to show his care through money is thwarted, he inherits the title of “burden.” Whether intended by his family or not, he slowly begins to think of himself more and more as a bug.
As I was reading, I was experiencing Gregor’s agony. I know what it feels like to slowly feel more and more like a burden. I know what it is like to watch your parents suffer while you struggle in vain for complete financial independence.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 15% of young adults lived with their parents, according to a 2019 article from MarketWatch. This article also reported that “roughly half of both Millenials and Generation Z expect to be reliant on their parents into their early 20’s.”
Speaking as one of those unlucky kids caught right between the arbitrarily drawn lines of the two younger generations, I can testify that the growing number of young adults who still depend on their parents financially is not a sign that the upcoming generations are layabouts. Rather, as the MarketWatch article suggests, we are generations crippled by increasingly high student loan debts and rent prices, not to mention the insecure job market created by the current global pandemic.
According to Lindsey Pollak, author of “The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace,” “Financial help from your parents is an economic necessity for this generation. It’s unfair to compare a 30-year-old today to one 30 years ago.”
My friends’ experiences along with my own indicate a mutual, growing sense of existential dread and personal crisis across the younger generations. This is the connection for me between my lived experience and Gregor’s fictional transformation.
Now, when he cannot work and requires the care of his family, he just starts to feel more and more like a problem, like a bug. He struggles with his humanity as he watches his family slowly detach from him, and he becomes increasingly isolated in his suffering over his lack of usefulness. He falls into an existential crisis and, when he overhears his sister say that Gregor is dead, for if he were in that bug somewhere he would have left and spared his family from pain, it is the final, fatal blow: he dies.
I am a member of the younger generation that experienced the Great Recession of 2008. Our creativity and individuality was superficially praised and simultaneously suppressed by a school system designed to prepare us for “the real world,” not by teaching us how to budget, cook or even navigate our own bodies, but rather by teaching us to accept overtime in the form of homework, to move through our day guided by the sound of a bell and to accept that the worth of our work will always be determined by someone higher on the food chain.
The part of me that identifies with Gregor is the part of me that feels degraded and disrespected for my financial dependence. No matter how many hours I work weekly, no matter how high my grades are, I always end up feeling like less than enough when I can’t afford my own groceries. Similarly, Gregor is put in a position of dependence, and the crushing weight of his inability to provide, the pressure placed upon him by this idea that he is less than human now that he cannot work, slowly eats away at his humanity from the inside.
So what is the solution? I’m not railing for full-blown revolution (at least not in this article). However, I am hoping to point out the concerning shared experience of my generation, the way in which we are looked down upon for being at the whim of factors far out of our control. We try, and we often succeed, just not enough. We as a culture need to shift our understanding of worth from considerations of how financially useful a person is. We need to see people as people, and find their worth in their humanity, rather than their utility.