Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Generation Screwed: Millennials Confront Depressing Times

In The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway chronicles the plight of the “Lost Generation.” These were the Americans who had fought in World War I, only to return physically and psychologically shattered, forever alienated from a nation they no longer felt a part of.

Now some have questioned whether my generation—the so-called “Millennials,” born around 1980---has become the new Lost Generation. The combined impact of the economic collapse, the burden of outrageous student loans, increased job competition from out of work Baby Boomers, and a general reluctance of companies to hire anyone has left young Americans feeling they may never get even so much as a taste of their slice of the American Dream.

According to a story in the Huffington Post (4/22/2012), one in two college graduates cannot find work. Those who can are underemployed and likely working at a low-skill service or retail job that does not utilize their education and pays little more than minimum wage.

I can certainly relate.

Last year at this time I was bagging groceries at the local Hannaford. While I was grateful for the little bit of money the job brought in (though, at part-time, I was ineligible for benefits), I felt, with my college education and master’s degree, like a failure. The situation is the same for most of my friends my age—all of whom have at least a bachelor’s degree. Most of them are unemployed. Those that do work are either underemployed, or can only get short-term contract jobs. Contract workers receive no benefits, no job security, and typically do not have union protection.

Welcome to the future of work. The traditional concept of holding one job after college for the duration of one’s working life—the route our parents, the Baby Boomer generation took, in other words—is over. In fact, experts predict my generation will not achieve the economic success and stability that our parents did.

Companies have essentially concluded employees are just another cost-cutting measure. Why spend all your money on 30 full-time employees, asks the miserly, penny-pinching manager, when you can run your business with, say ten and pocket the savings? And most nonprofits, having adopted the same shrewd, indifferent methods as businesses in order to stay competitive, are no different. They have become just as singularly obsessed with the bottom-line as their for-profit rivals.

“How does it feel,” Jello Biafra asks in the Dead Kennedy’s “Soup is Good Food,” “to be shit out our ass? And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash?”

Contrary to upbeat news reports of the economy’s supposed upturn, job growth in most states remains stagnant. My hometown of Portland, Maine is no exception. One cannot walk down Congress Street without being haggled by desperate looking, homeless beggars, looking for spare change. Many of them suffer from addiction or mental illness; others are just hard-working folks who fell on hard times. These people represent society’s most vulnerable.

But rather than getting the poor the help they need, Gov. Paul LePage and the state’s Republican legislature would rather grow their ranks, by passing an austerity budget that throws some 65,000 Mainers off of Medicare.

LePage received thundering applause at the Republican state convention when he callously chided welfare recipients to “Get off the couch and get a job.”  One would think LePage, who is constantly trumpeting his own struggle with childhood poverty, would sympathize with the plight of the poor. Instead, he and his budget-cutting conservative cronies make baseless claims about the dependency-inducing effects of so-called “entitlement” programs.

Republicans nationally, meanwhile, want to protect bloated, wasteful Pentagon funding at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid and disability compensation programs. Such a brazen show of warped, unjustifiable priorities cannot help but remind one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s profound words: “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

King uttered these words 45 years ago. What does it say about our unshakable thirst for war and empire that they still apply today?

Rather than focusing on job creation or boosting the economy, House Republicans remain singularly obsessed with the federal deficit. Instead of addressing the immediate, short-term relief struggling Americans so desperately need, budget-slashing conservatives have insidiously used the economic crisis as an excuse to roll back social programs they never approved of in the first place. This is precisely the sort of political exploitation of national turmoil Naomi Klein warns of in The Shock Doctrine.

This is the economy my generation is up against. One of my friends just graduated from USM over the weekend. I am honestly not sure whether to praise or pity him.

As the New York Times’ Paul Krugman notes in a recent piece (4/29/2012), long term unemployment is especially destructive to young Americans attempting to launch their careers. Young people, he writes, are “graduating into an economy that doesn’t seem to want them.”

He adds, “And research tells us the price isn’t temporary: students who graduate into a bad economy never recover the lost ground. Instead, their earnings are depressed for life.”

Depressing findings, to be certain. But then, for members of my lost generation, these are depressing times. 

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