Millennials will be okay
Things look bad now, but Millennials possess traits that makes them better equipped to have a happier life than previous generations.
One cold late-October morning, I watch as a few hundred protesters circle near the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, clutching picket signs. One reads, osama ben bernanke, economic terrorist. I watch a businessman garbed in an ankle-length cashmere jacket and leather gloves stride past. Discreetly, the man raises a gloved middle finger to the throng of protesters before he disappears inside the building.
Shortly after, I meet Jill Johnson, 29, who graduated from Cornell University in 2004 with a degree in political science and sociology. Johnson is an out-of-work paralegal. She has been jobless for nearly two years and has been steadily looking for a gig. In September, she moved back in with her parents in Beverly. When I meet her, she has been protesting for 20 days.
Johnson represents countless Millennials who carry a large student-loan burden. The Project on Student Debt, a national nonprofit independent research and policy organization, claims that two-thirds of all college grads in 2010 faced student debt averaging $25,250. The average salary for a 2011 college graduate is $51,171*, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. But in my experience as a college professor, I don’t know many recent grads who are making even close to that, at least in creative fields.
[* My first “real” journalism job out of college—which I accepted in June 2008, exactly a year after I graduated from Northwestern, after 12 months of interning at $7 per hour—paid about $20,000 less than that. Due to staffwide pay cuts, when I left three years later, I made less than when I started.]
When Johnson graduated from Cornell, she owed $20,000. After the Department of Justice cut funding for her position—a legal advocate for immigrants and victims of domestic and sexual violence—she was unable to make her monthly payments, and interest built up quickly. She now owes $28,000 and has no idea how she will pay it off. But she knows one thing: The system has to change.
“The corporate abuse of our democracy is deplorable,” she says. “And I absolutely believe that the Occupy movement is going to accomplish things. There are a lot of motivated people throughout the world, and I am just one of them.”
Critics have cited Occupy as an example of the “entitlement generation”—youth who are pissed off at the circumstances served up to them by the current economy and, by marching, protesting and picketing, are only looking out for No. 1*. “You can argue that the Occupy movement shows a lack of awareness in that it’s a movement of complaint but not a movement of solution,” says Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University. “They recognize something’s not working; they just haven’t been very effective in saying what’s next.”
[* I’m reminded of the Book of Mormon lyric: “Heavenly Father, why do you let bad things happen? More to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?”]
But whether or not the movement achieves change, it’s making Millennials more aware of what’s going on in Washington. The possible benefits? “When they get into positions of power and responsibility, [they may] realize that a lot of what happened was caused by people’s recklessness and greed, and they’ll be more responsible,” Alsop says. “Maybe we can hope things like Enron ten years ago, and Lehman Brothers three years ago, and the world economic crisis that it started, won’t repeat.”