Dispatch from the Lost Generation

by Shaker Meghan

You don't need me to tell you that the economy stinks right now, or that unemployment is ridiculously high—9.1% as of August (pdf). However, one aspect of the economy that has been discussed, but with no real understanding or analysis of the consequences, is unemployment among young adults.

New 2010 Census data was released recently that put unemployment among young adults (16-29) at the highest level since World War II. Student loan debt is skyrocketing, and college degrees are no guarantee of a job. I should know—I graduated in May and have had no luck in the last 4 months.

So, what does this mean? What does it mean that media articles about youth unemployment are already calling my generation "The Lost Generation," with experts noting that our careers will see long-term effects? What does it mean that I graduated from an excellent university, and of all the fellow 2011 graduates I know, there are only a tiny handful who have secured full-time permanent jobs, many of whom hate those jobs, because they are not in their field and/or because of the stressful working conditions plaguing US workers (like understaffing and other abuses of employees who fear losing income and health insurance)? What does it mean that we, like many other workers, are being exploited at work but keep those hated and dead-end jobs anyway, because bills and loans must be paid? What does it mean?

To me, at least, it means I'm terrified.

I'm terrified for my own job prospects, my friends' job prospects, and the long-term effects on career advancement. I'm terrified for those who weren't as fortunate as I was to get a scholarship to college, allowing me to graduate without loans—because if I'm scared now, you can bet it would be so much worse if I was staring $80,000 of student loan debt in the face. I'm terrified, and I also feel guilty, because I know I'm so lucky, compared to those who didn't get to go to college at all, those who have families to support and have been jobless for many months more than I, those who don't have families able to help.

I'm not just terrified because of these problems. Rather, I'm terrified because it seems as if no one in power really knows, or cares—because our Congress is controlled in one house by far-right ideologues and in the other by millionaires, none of whom really seem to have any concept of what the average American faces right now; because our government, the media, and so much else is influenced or outright controlled by corporations and billionaires; and because I'm 20 years old, and I am already struggling to hold on to my optimism about my own future.

I care deeply and passionately about this world and the people in it. I care about feminism, anti-racism, progressivism, social justice, economic equality—and I want desperately to work towards making this world better for everyone. Not just hope that it happens, but be an active part of institutional change. I'm not unusual either—lots of young people I've met share my ideals. I know so many people who are smart, passionate, and motivated by many of the same things as me—and right now, a lot of those people are unemployed, working unpaid internships, or working low-wage jobs to make ends meet.

I don't know what the consequences will be of this widespread unemployment, astronomical debt, alienation from the political culture many of us are already trying desperately to change, and inaction on the part of those who are in a position to make a difference right now, but I can't imagine they're going to be anything but disastrous.

Recently, I was talking with a friend, who is working at an unpaid internship for the fall, and Occupy Wall Street came up, unsurprisingly. Both of us had been thinking about it a lot, and both of us agreed that we have such complicated feelings about it. I am exhilarated by the protests—by the messages, the diversity of people involved, and by the growing media attention. It speaks to so much of what I am concerned about, and what I have hoped for, for a long time.

However, we both agreed that we are only cautiously optimistic—we think this really could be the start of something big, but we are worried about politicians co-opting the message, about the voices of the young and the less-privileged being marginalized, about the protesters not being radical enough to challenge the kyriarchy which underlies systemic inequities. Occupy Wall Street inspires me, and gives me hope that thousands of people share my concerns—but that doesn't erase my feeling that something even more massive has to happen for there to be lasting, measurable change in my life and the lives of people who share my struggles, if not my exact circumstances.

I'm fundamentally an optimist, and I believe in my generation—in our hopes, our dreams, the things we've already accomplished, our visions for a better tomorrow. I believe in the capacity of people to unite, and the power of unity. I just don't know if I believe that our society and government will give us anything resembling a fair chance to put into action the dreams we share.

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