It’s certainly been said before: we are the lost generation.
I recently watched the Class of 2010 from our prestigious law school go off into the world unemployed and with no prospects. The grads themselves put the unemployment level at about two-thirds of the class, an unbelievably horrible statistic for a school that was reporting graduate employment in the high 90s when these students matriculated. A quick glance at the results of career services’ employment survey shows a 35% response rate. It’s amazing how closely that mirrors what the students themselves claim as far as their collective employment status. I’ve been pondering what the implications of this are for these former classmates and peers. This kind of catastrophe has never happened to many of us. Certainly, many people have overcome great obstacles, tragedies, and disasters in life. We all have our personal difficulties to surmount. However, I doubt many people have seen their future really evaporate.
What happens when you hit full stop and realize that there really is no job for you? You realize that all you have worked for over years, maybe close to a decade, is for naught. It’s one thing to be waylaid by life’s curves and detours. It’s quite another to come to the end of the journey, the culmination of your young adult life thus far, and find that the road is closed. We go to school for the first quarter of our lives so we can get a job, find a profession, in which to spend the rest of it. What happens when this long-established road to employment, to professional life, to success, becomes impassible? Who do you turn to for guidance when your parents and mentors lived through the biggest economic boom times in living memory, when jobs were plentiful and the sky, or at least the suburbs, was the limit? How do you relate to people whose only experience has taught them that the only people who can’t get a decent job are lazy, inefficient, or defective?
In days of yore, disenchanted 20-somethings could decamp to the City of Light to ponder their place in the world and get slammed with Ernest Hemingway. Sadly, this is no longer an option for most. How is an intrepid graduate going to scrounge up the dough to hit Europe, or even some more affordable third-world backwater, with 150,000 dollars in debt hanging over their head?
The tens of thousands of scammed graduates, this lost generation, will not be knocking around Europe, writing the Great American Novel, and ruminating on some grand poetry in a Parisian salon. They will be working the cash register at Walgreen’s, mowing lawns for the parks department, and hunching over a computer screen in a dank basement reviewing documents for $15/hour--if they’re lucky. At night, they will slink home and fire up the stove for a meal of delicious Ramen noodles. Occasionally, their eyes will wander to the forgotten corner of their efficiency apartment where their undergrad, masters, law, or doctorate degree sits in a dusty frame. Having thus triggered a night of uncontrollable sobbing and/or binge drinking, this overeducated, overqualified debt peon will catch a few winks of sleep before having to get up and grind it out again for $8 an hour.
Do you remember what it was like to dream big? High school graduation is, for me, only a few short years in the rear view mirror. Be it five, ten, or twenty, everyone remembers. Some of us dreamt of being big shots. Many others were just excited to get out into the world, go to college, and get a decent middle class job and live like their parents. I sure as hell didn’t expect to see scores of people go off to four-year private universities, come home, and only be able to get a job cutting grass and de-icing asphalt for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Those of us who postponed this harsh reality and took refuge in law or grad school are only prolonging the pain. Our financial reality will be even bleaker. Many of us put off imagining what living under six figures of non-dischargeable debt while earning peanuts must be like. It’s easy to forget that the dream we’re all working for—a normal, stable job, decent salary, and ability to pay back our debts and keep a roof over our heads—has vanished for millions of young people. Reading “DEFERRED-CURRENTLY ENROLLED” on your loan statement every month is akin to taking a nice big dose of opiates. The pain is dulled, reality slips away. The realization that you have been sold down the river by higher education and your lenders is postponed.
The Boomers will cry foul. It’s your fault, we’re told. No one told you to take out 75,000 dollars in loans to study political science. You should have known a master’s degree is useless. You’re a moron for not realizing that there are not enough jobs to go around. You ought to have realized the legal economy was going to implode and there never were enough jobs for all of you. You think you have it tough, well we lived during the 70s oil crisis!
You went to college and law school in a time where a semester’s tuition put you back mere hundreds of dollars. You may have started out with nothing, but you didn’t start out 50, 100, 150 thousand dollars in the hole. And although you started out small, there were jobs for you. You were able to climb the ladder. Dramatically fewer people held college degrees when you were working your first jobs and building your careers. You had it easy, by every measure, but you didn’t bother to make things easy for us.
We did not subsidize any and all higher education. We did not give schools a free pass to raise tuition every year, for decades, in the knowledge that the money would always come in because the feds were putting up the cash. We didn’t wreck the global economy. We didn’t destroy the American manufacturing sector and outsource millions of service jobs. We didn’t approve of legal work being outsourced to non-lawyers for pennies on the dollar in India. We didn’t arrange things so that the only job you can get with a B.A. is being a barista.
But there is one thing we did do, and it’s cursed us ever since. We listened to you Boomers. We believed our teachers and parents who drilled into us the notion that higher education is the key to advancement. We believed the President when he told us that everyone should go to college. We believed you when you told us paying $40,000 a year for private college was an investment in our futures. We believed you when you said it was absolutely necessary to raise our public university tuition 15% year after year. We believed the bogus employment and salary statistics cooked up by unctuous law school deans who were eager to see Sallie Mae and federal loan dollars keep pouring in. We believed because we wanted to, but isn’t that what we are supposed to do? People are supposed to trust in their institutions: higher education, the government, the president. Their parents. Young people are supposed to be able to have faith in their elders. So yes, we believed in you, and now we’re doomed. While we figure out how to handle this student debt, forgive us if we have a hard time paying for your trillions in unfunded medical, retirement, and social security liabilities. You had the wheel; we believed you could bring us in safely. Well, now we can all go down together.
A big thanks from the Lost Generation.