A New “Lost Generation?”

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My weekend plans to check out a potential doomstead having blown up, I found myself on Saturday night at a birthday party for a young Occupier who just turned 30. This is a young man from a neighboring Occupy group who had proven himself to be very intelligent: whenever he opened his mouth, he generally had something to say which was Right. On. Point. So I was happy to be able to attend, and looked forward to spending some time with him and his friends.

 

His apartment and the area outside was filled with young people, all of them 20- or 30- somethings. (My lady friend and I were the oldest people in attendance, by several decades.) After a long, protracted and frustrating search, the birthday celebrant finds himself working at a restaurant, learning a trade, and diligent in his cooperation with the owner to try to make that business profitable.  He is also wise enough to see the self-interest of learning everything he can right now, the better to gain knowledge to apply to his own career, and perhaps a restaurant of his own someday. So he is doing all right, and on his 30th, finds that he has some lift under his wings.

 

Everywhere within were the faces of earnest, fresh-faced people, full of life and exuberance and party spirits, friendly and willing to engage in conversation. The crazy kid who had recently passed a kidney stone (!), who became the resident paparazzi, taking pictures of everybody with great good humor; the intense redhead in the kitchen, engaged in thoughtful conversation, even with an old guy; the sincere young politico, whose lefty rant made my ears perk up; charming young women in attractive dress and better good humor . . .  The sorts of faces that two generations ago I might have encountered at any college party.  Some of these young people had completed or attended college, including the local community college. Many others had not.

Many of these young people in attendance were employed sketchily, if at all, in one of a variety of service level jobs. This was not a gaggle of young professionals, secure in their future prospects, educations paid for and themselves well on their way to professions laden with status and benefits. Rather, this was a group of young people who the captains of our economy forgot—working class people. People who grew up in circumstances much like my own.

When I saw last night was a gaggle of thirty-odd young people in various stages of coping with an economy in which all of the money had been sucked away.

Were both of us thirty years younger, what has occurred to these folks would have occurred to us as well. What became clear to us is that we had a ringside seat for the formation of an entire generation denied the expectation of  a functional middle-class lifestyle, the first generation in the history of this country without a reasonable expectation of doing better than their parents.

 

IN 1992, many of us chortled at H. Ross Perot in the TV debates, and wondered what he meant when he mentioned the “giant sucking sound” that NAFTA would create as North American jobs would be whisked to the maquilidoras. Now, twenty years later, we know what he meant. And our children are paying the price for our inattention and selfishness.

Many of us are old enough to remember when it was possible for working-class kids, particular those without a higher education, to go to work, get a job, and make a life for themselves. Own a house, own a car, to maybe own a vacation home or a boat—none of that was beyond the reach of a factory worker making a decent wage. For the young people in attendance at this party last night, the new normal looks like this: part-time work, topping out at 35 hours per week, so as to not incur the obligation of paying for benefits, no health insurance, living either at home, or in an apartment with several other people to share expenses, no car, and an uncertain future.

Yet these exuberant partygoers were vibrant, attractive full of life, and intent on having a good time in the face of all. There is nothing wrong with their work ethic or attitudes. Here’s one example:

One young woman told her story of working two jobs to be able to go to aesthetician school, so that she could work in a shop, and potentially have her own shop someday. She successfully completed the course of study, and began work at what she called her “dream job.” Then she ran afoul of The Law. I did not get the entire story, and did not push for it, but she apparently incurred a fine for a motor vehicle infraction that she could not pay, and lost her license. The next day, driving without a license (yes, I know), at a  red light, a cop ran her plates and discovered that fact. The local magistrate who heard her case was not amused, and with little empathy and less humor  remanded her to a week in jail. Which spelled the end of that “dream job.” Thus her employment and opportunity at a job she really loved came to grief, and now she works as a waitress at an IHOP, ostensibly to find another way to climb the career ladder.

 

Barbara Ehrenreich covered some of this ground in her book, “Nickel and Dimed- On (Not) Getting By in America” in which she went undercover as a low wage worker to find out how non-skilled workers make ends meet. The experiment took place in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, with Ehrenreich finding a job and lodgings in each location. In each location, Ehrenreich worked full time and lived only off the amount of money earned in those low-wage jobs. Her goal was to determine whether or not she could both live off the money earned and have enough money at the end of the month to pay the next month’s rent. One of the things Ehrenreich learned is how easy it is to get in serious trouble with the law because you don’t have a whole lot of money.

In a subsequent interview, Ehrenreich said, “It is now easy to get into serious trouble with the law because you don’t have much money – and then to get poorer and poorer because you get in serious trouble with the law. The classic example would be if you have a broken headlight on your car, but you can’t fix it because that would cost over $100. So you get stopped by the police, and you get a fine of maybe $100 or $200. If you could have paid that, you could have fixed the damn light! Now you have this debt to the government. If you don’t pay that, you begin to be in really big trouble that just builds and builds. More fines and fees are added, and they will all accumulate interest too. At some point, if you haven’t paid, you are very likely to have a warrant out for your arrest.”

While some of us might look down the nose of a young person who continues to drive without a license, I find that our very system of laws tends to concentrate on further disadvantaging the last and the least among us. Not for nothing are our private for profit prisons guaranteed a 90 per cent occupancy by the states that contract with them, and are they filled with people guilty of victimless crimes.

Several partygoers had either attended college without completion, accumulating student loans with little prospect of paying them off in the near term, or have graduated from college, with even more loans trailing along behind, and were unable to find a job by which to launch a career. An astonishing number of these thirtysomethings were living back at home, and for their trouble were hearing from their parents, “Why don’t you show some initiative and go out and get a job?” I assume these parents have apparently have not opened a newspaper in the last 20 years.

After the party, I discussed some of these issues with my friend. She recalled her own experience at the age of 19 wondering, “What should do with my life? How might I make my way? What career should I choose?” And at least she perceived herself as having the opportunity to choose from among a range of options, as did I with the benefit of a university education, and a notion of my chosen field.

So what do we have to show for the forty year class war and dismantling of American manufacturing? We have created a generation without recourse to higher education as a practical matter, because children of the working class have as their only option to finance said education the assumption of massive debt. And assuming you have the risk tolerance to assume said debt, that is a huge bet placed against the prospect of an  uncertain future of finding employment in their chosen field. Whether you do or not, the debt, the ruinous debt, remains, and cannot be discharged, apparently even by bankruptcy. What a system.

So what do the facts say? This from May 2010:

In 2007, 5.4 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed; the official rate is now 9.0 percent. The number of unemployed high school graduates jumped from 12 percent in 2007 to 22.5 percent. Over this three-year period, the youth labor force (workers age 16 to 24) has contracted by 1.1 million workers, the report found, and an additional 1.2 million more “have become disconnected from both formal schooling and work.”

This 5 percent drop represents the largest contraction for any age group in the population. “For the class of 2010,” the report states, “it will be one of the worst years to graduate high school or college since at least 1983 and possibly the worst since the end of World War II.”

Indeed, the entire US workforce faces one of the toughest job markets in the post-World War II era. Official unemployment currently stands at 9.5 percent, and most economists predict that these high levels will persist for years to come. As in countless countries in Europe and around the world, the ruling class of the US has attempted to avert financial crisis from the stock markets and the banks onto the backs of the working class, both through government debt and through the imposition of social austerity measures.

Such measures, however, put deflationary pressures on economies throughout the globe, increasing the likelihood of a further turn in the downwardly spiraling global economy. This scenario presents the very real possibility that current US unemployment levels, far from improving, are situated to increase, perhaps drastically, in the near future.

Amid this grim economic atmosphere, young workers are compelled to take on gargantuan levels of student debt, and are confronted by the complete absence of even the threadbare social safety net available to other demographics.

Students graduating with a bachelor’s degree from public four-year institutions owe on average $19,535. Undergraduates completing degrees at private four-year institutions now owe, on average, $25,350. In comparison, these same figures in the 2000-2001 academic year were $14,916 and $16,906 respectively.

Most students now finish their degrees in six years, or not at all, due in large part to the burden of carrying a full workload while pursuing their education.

http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/may2010/stud-m28.shtml

Not surprisingly, a surprisingly large number of these young people are completely disaffected with the consumerist, happy motoring lifestyle, which offers them little aside from low-level service jobs, and are pursuing ways of living that are more sustainable and less contributive to the giant capitalist bloodsucking wealth machine.

As I spoke with these folks and collected their stories, it  also occurred to me that a generation without little hope and fewer prospects could be easily swayed to vote for somebody who offers both. Were I in their shoes, it would be easy to listen to blandishments of a Man on Horseback.  Recently  Endisnigh published some comments in the Forum from Craig Dilworth, among which these stood out:

“As regards free trade, Douthwaite points out that international free trade inescapably leads to a levelling down. It means that salaries and wages will tend to converge at Third World levels, and social security provisions in industrial countries will continue to be cut, since these are an overhead that economies cannot bear if they are to compete successfully with countries without them. Only the owners of the surviving transnational companies and of natural resources will escape the general impoverishment. Already the islands of prosperity are growing steadily smaller in an otherwise sick, dilapidated and hungry world. “

More Dilworth:

In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, no matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place. The highest goals require no justification; all secondary goals have finally to justify themselves in terms of the service their attainment renders to the attainment of the highest. This is the philosophy of [ social ] materialism, and it is this philosophy – or metaphysic – which is now being challenged by events.

Dilworth (2010-03-12). Too Smart for our Own Good (p. 400 – 405). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

So this coming generation may be primed and ready for a man on horseback, offering to lead them to a promised land, the paving stones of which ostensibly come from  the clawback of health benefits, pensions, Social Security, and other attributes of the “nanny state” that we use to characterize as the American dream, and which, under the influence of far too much Tea, we now call “socialism.”

 

Because of Wall Street bailouts, the Bush tax cuts, various scams and other welfare for the rich, the money that used to employ people has been sucked out of the economy.  Money is now scant for education, for job creation, training or for social services for unemployed young Americans. Any funding for basic social spending is predicated on austerity, on gutting the living standards of American workers and opening such areas as education, health services and infrastructure to further privatization and profit-taking at the expense of the public.

And we call this policy. It is a crime against the next generation. And this, among other reasons, is why I Occupy.

 

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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