Suzie Dershowitz: A Moment of Infinite Possibility
Since the financial crisis rocked the country and the world, many pundits, politicians, and so-called experts have tried to peg Generation Y (mainly emerging from college and attempting to enter the workforce) as apathetic and demoralized. In their eyes, we would never be granted access to the “American Dream” we had been led to believe was ours.
Our aging, egocentric boomer parents had instilled in us the belief that we were special, smart, and unique, that we deserved the best adulthood had to offer because we were the best. Each and every one of us.
But as the consumerism and growth that marked the ‘90s came to a screeching halt, pronouncements about the “lost generation” began proliferating. We are to be the first generation that does not supersede our parents’ quality of living. We are inheriting a wrecked economy, a society characterized by the starkest income inequality and wealth disparity since the Great Depression, and soaring national debt. Unemployment rates are at record highs, and the U.S. government (stymied by congressional squabbling and corrupted by corporate personhood) no longer works for the majority of Americans.
So what happened after graduation and how did this national story affect us at the individual level? After packing up and moving out of whatever college towns had nurtured us for 4+ years, many/most/some of us went right back home to Mom and Dad’s house to consider our options. Some friends of mine who had studied business went to work in consulting, commanding huge starting salaries and undertaking nightmarish hours from the get-go. Some found work at start-ups writing code for websites and computer programs. However, many of those disinterested in the fields of finance and tech were forced to chart their own course.
Unpaid internships abound — opportunities to seize or time to waste depending on the attitude of the intern. One friend went to Africa to pursue development work. Others have jumped headlong into post-graduate studies, getting law degrees and Ph.D.s in physics and sociology.
Whatever squeezed options recent grads seem to be exploring, some researchers and academics are referring to the Millennial Generation in terms of “delayed transition.” Because of the current market climate, our growth will be stunted. Video-game playing and festival-going will stretch on into our 20s, as opposed to traditional adult milestones of entering the professional world and getting married. Increasing numbers of individuals with college degrees will succumb to service jobs, working at restaurants and cafes at minimum wage (just as we always did through high school and college). That diploma in your back pocket threatens to become a literal signifier — hanging on your childhood bedroom door, unused and collecting dust.
Or so the thinking goes.
Coming of age during such an economic downturn may have given others cause to pity recent graduates and aspiring young people. But a year after earning my degree, I have reason to think otherwise. Today’s youth are not lazy or discouraged, even though they have had (and will continue to have) their share of disappointments. The peak of corporate greed that brought down the economy also opened up the possibility for a new system, a system that will be organized in large part by those very young people inheriting today’s dim job prospects. Broad acceptance of liberal free-market capitalism as the engine of growth and equality for a booming middle class has been shattered. Two-party politics and current campaign finance laws (as interpreted by the Supreme Court) are no longer widely recognized as markers of a democracy shaped by the will of most Americans. The winds of change have shifted the dominant discourse in this country and young people will be the ones to come up with a new way forward.
I was working in New York City when Occupy Wall Street gripped the collective imagination of the nation. This movement, in discussing new regulatory bodies, new models of a working welfare state, new priorities for the government, opened up a revolutionary space. Twenty-somethings all around the country are engaging in the debate on what kind of society we want to live in and why the current trends do not reflect a future we want for our children. We are using new modes of social media to connect to our peers and engage an increasingly wider circle of people in this dialogue.
According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, millennials are confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change. “Their entry into careers and first jobs has been badly set back by the Great Recession, but they are more upbeat than their elders about their own economic futures as well as the overall state of the nation.” It is also telling that according to the report, more so than other generations we believe government should do more to solve problems.
Millennials were among Obama’s strongest political supporters during 2008, backing him for president by more than a two-to-one ratio while older adults were giving just 50 percent of their votes to the Democratic nominee. This was the greatest disparity between younger and older voters recorded in four decades of election polling. But political fervor for Obama has chilled. Young people overcome with hope and optimism found a more centrist approach in place of the change we were led to believe in on the campaign trail.
Although most young people who supported Obama now believe that he has (so far) failed to change the way Washington works, this does not mean that our political engagement is flagging. Rather, the nature of youth political participation may continue to shift towards the streets, blogs, and other modes of grassroots organizing. Disheartened by the Democrats, tired of the cowering liberals who have failed to put up a fight against the moneyed interests and D.C. insiders, American young people are seeking new ways to express our political demands.
Although the future is uncertain and many 20-somethings are out of work, we are not disheartened. As the current order continues to crumble under the weight of the Great Recession, I see this moment as one of infinite possibility. Although we can’t start from scratch, we have a unique opportunity to question what kind of society we want to build and translate new ideas into meaningful action.
About Suzie Dershowitz: After eight years living in California, I am back on the East coast, currently working as a public policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in Washington, D.C. I studied political science at UC Berkeley and still miss the rich culture and rolling hills of the Bay Area. I love travel, film festivals, and good sushi. I still look up to my big sister and I am passionate about social justice issues.