What was that line y’all fed us when we were but knee high and tow headed, sitting cross-legged in the assembly hall with casts on our arms and a song in our hearts? It was something to do with stars and moons and dreams and how if we just reached high enough and far enough and hard enough we’d touch ’em some day—and we believed you because we were eight years old and what the shit did we know about globalization and national debt fetishism? Hell, we were content to just sit there playing Hot Cross Buns on the recorder and learning how to write a cursive Q because you told us this information was somehow connected with our future health, wealth and happiness. Go to college you said. Get yourself a top rate education and when you graduate a vast expanse of opportunity will be unfurled before you, in accordance with the free market scriptures, because cream rises to the top my boy and water finds its own level. Our entire lives have been predicated on Adam Smith’s Third Law of Monetary Physics which states every academic action has an equal and opposite reaction. Get them A’s and do what yourn elders done and you’ll find a decent sized salary and a starter home waiting for you on the other side. That’s what you said.
And, don’t you know it, when I got my bachelor’s degree and started looking for work I didn’t just find one job…I found two. Granted, I only found two because I had to, seeing as how no one would hire me for more than 30 hours because bringing me on full time meant paying me benefits and my employers weren’t fitting to do that. Of course, since one job paid $8.75/hr and the other paid $9.25/hr, I had to work between 50-60 hours a week to pull in anything approaching a decent paycheck, but I figured it was simply a situation where I pay my dues before I prove myself worthy of a real big boy job. So, I go about with the temp worker two-step for about a year and a half before getting my big break, making about 32k working as an english and technology teacher at the school that I’d been working for. I mean, when I left undergrad I wasn’t exactly dreaming of a salary in the low 30s, but Christ, it came with health and dental and wicked job security so I was chomping at the bit to get started. Naturally, this meant that less than a week after being hired, I was informed that I wasn’t…well, hired, because the deal that the teachers union had with Cincinnati Public Schools stated that they had to interview at least one union-represented teacher who had lost their job due to downsizing before they hired a scab like me.
Objectively, I realized the policy was the right one because the union teacher who they had to interview before me had been let go on account of shitty city funding and not performance, so he or she deserved the chance to win their job back, but that didn’t mean it didn’t suck to have the occupational rug pulled out from under you. After licking my wounds for a little while, I tried pushing for a promotion at my other job, but found nothing doing their either. Turns out that my boss at the halfway house I worked at wanted to hire me for a vacant counselor’s position, but since I didn’t have the appropriate licensure and education, he couldn’t. Nevermind the fact that only one of the other counselors at the halfway house had the appropriate graduate education because they took the jobs before the licensing requirements were codified and got grandfathered in.
I took all of this as a sign from the employment gods and decided to traipse off and get my masters degree in social work. Fast forward two years and I’m set to graduate next month. I have been filling out job applications like thing possessed and thus far have nothing but a series of form e-mail rejections to show for it. I am 26 years old and have spent more years doing unpaid internship work (3) than working as a paid employee (2). I will have two degrees and yet never seen a salary or benefits, and I’ve been informed by the powers that be at my graduate program that I should get used to the reality that if I find a salaried job, I should be content with anything in the mid-30s.
It might sound like I’m just bitching, and that’s because I am. In and of itself, my story is unremarkable, but as seen within the context of the generational unemployment numbers it is a harbinger of America’s economic unraveling. According to a recent report by The Center for American Progress1, the unemployment rate for those between the ages of 16-24 is 16.2%, more than double the national average. These unemployment numbers, while shocking in and of themselves, are only the first stage in the devaluing of an entire generation of Americans. It is estimated that, among the 1 million members of my generational cohort—known as “The Millenials”—who have experienced long term unemployment during this current recession, there will be over $20 billion in lost earnings just over the next 10 years. That’s an average of about $22,000 a person among a group of folks who can ill-afford to be losing money considering the early difficulties they’ve encountered in the job market. In fact, thanks to long term unemployment, mounting student loan debt and a dearth of stable, well-paying job opportunities, many Millenials are being forced to continue living with their parents throughout their twenties and have been rendered unable to begin saving for retirement, all while hemorrhaging money from their paychecks towards social security benefits for their grandparents and parents that they may never see themselves.
If you want to dismiss this as the bitching of an entitled twenty-something, then that’s fine, but know this: My generation, and the one directly preceding it, were sold a false bill of goods. Hard work and drive and talent don’t guarantee you a goddamn thing in this economy. These days a college degree is worth about as much as a high school diploma was worth in the 1950s and a high school diploma ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on. The baby boomers are all going grey and we’re the ones who will be forced to take care of them with resources we don’t have. According the Alzheimer’s Association2, the costs related to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are expected to rise from $200 billion last year to $1.1 trillion in 2050. What are we going to pay for that care with? I.O.U.’s? The overwhelming majority of our country’s good manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas and into Latin America, while our service-based economy has done nothing but widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country, with US income inequality clocking in at a higher rate than countries like Mexico and Costa Rica.3 Across the spectrum, with a massive exception for the exorbitantly wealthy, our futures have gotten dimmer—our pockets lighter. The breaking point is out there, somewhere, covered in the tattered remnants of the American Dream. Eventually we’re going to find it. Eventually.