May 31, 2013
So the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Hank Huckaby, caused a slight kerkuffle among my alumni community this past week, when he said, in reference to the fact that apparently large numbers of jobs in Georgia are going unfilled, that “students are studying the wrong things,” and that “If you can’t get a job, and you majored in drama, there’s probably a reason.”
Where to even start. Oh, I’ll just start.
1. The point of a university education is not to fill a quota of jobs in particular industries that just happen to be available in the state. The point of a university education is to support and fulfill a student in the long term, not simply as a worker but as a learning, thinking, creating person. College education should enrich an entire society with a liberal range of thinking skills, not simply enable young adults to fill available jobs.
If industries with jobs to fill are failing to attract students and applicants by making a reasonable case that the work is worthy of their dedication for the salaries they’re offering, that is not the student body’s fault. Industries with jobs to fill are not entitled to students’ lives or attention. A graduate has no particular duty to take any given job, anywhere, or to train for any given job just because it’s available.
2. It is so easy to take the stereotype of the undisciplined, flighty, starving actor or artist and say if you studied drama and now you don’t have a job, maybe you studied the wrong thing. But who would look at an unemployed graduate who studied business, marketing, or biochemistry, and say “Maybe you studied the wrong thing. Maybe you should have studied photography or playwrighting?”
But maybe they should have. Maybe a kid who sacrificed their true interests to what they were told was more practical, responsible, stable, or lucrative, would have been better off pursuing what they were a natural at. Maybe they would have found that being educated where their strengths and intuition lie is actually more reliable and life-sustaining.
3. People do work in the arts! Maybe this is overly obvious, but I really think that some of these bigwigs who run their mouths off overlook it. People work in the arts. People really do make their livings in the arts. People who quite possibly couldn’t sustain employment in more conventional career fields do so in the arts. People with very specific and uncommon talents find a life in the arts. People study for and work in the arts who damn well know that that path is their best bet.
And it’s not like the only thing to do with a drama degree is act or direct. There are jobs in management, administration, development, and design, just to name a few areas. There is such a profound ignorance of what it really takes to run the theater world, that, just for instance, I had not even heard of what would become my own job until I was in college.
Do too many people study drama expecting to be able to find jobs, or sustain themselves by performing, who then can’t? Sure, probably. But so what if everyone made more practical choices and studied dentistry or engineering instead? Would the economy then have the jobs available to support all of those people? A society can’t absorb an overabundance of nurses or computer scientists any more than it can a glut of theater artists. There aren’t a limitless number of jobs for electrical engineers, either. If everyone who hears Chancellor Huckaby’s speech takes his advice and chooses their field of study based on where job openings in Georgia currently are, who says those jobs will still be so plentiful, or even exist, five or ten years from now, and what happens to those students then? And in the meantime, what happens to a society that decides it doesn’t value the education of its artists and creators?
4. Make no mistake: I am employed because I studied drama.
Beyond the fact that I still actually work in the specific career which I chose in college, my education in theater gave me opportunities to develop communication, interpersonal, collaborative and analytical skills that I just would not have had access to otherwise. I found a world in which the kind of person I was at heart wasn’t considered a fundamental problem. I found a niche that demanded my natural skill set. I got told for the first time that the way I learn is a strength and not a weakness. I deeply understood how my own mind worked for the first time when I was taught to use a two-scene preset light board. Somebody taught me how to yell.
I really and truly don’t like to think about where I’d be right now if I hadn’t studied drama. And there’s almost nothing for which I’m more grateful to my younger self than the fact that she had the foresight to not listen to people like Chancellor Huckaby.
November 20, 2011
There was this guy…
(Here’s a link to better visibility and a transcription, along with a great point by point response.)
And then I saw this one today…
And that’s not even everyone in my Facebook news feed, let alone some corners of the internet where I don’t hang out, suggesting that the real problem with all these people bitching, whining, and complaining, is that they “just don’t want to work.”
Let’s get a few things sorted out, internet critics of Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement:
Protesting injustice and corruption is not the same as “just not wanting to work.”
Calling attention to it when something is seriously wrong is not the same as “not wanting to work.”
Standing up for your rights is not the same as “not wanting to work.”
Doing any of those things is not even a sign of somebody “just not wanting to work.”
Saying that “what is being done to us and our communities is wrong,” or that “the conditions under which we’re being expected to make ends meet are crushingly unsustainable,” is not the same as “not wanting to work,” nor a sign that somebody just doesn’t want to work.
Pointing it out when an entire system has become radically unfair, or that the people who *did not cause a global economic collapse* are the ones being disproportionately punished for it, is not “just making excuses” or “not taking responsibility for your own life” or “wanting to blame somebody else for all your mistakes.”
So you can think that the OWS protesters are dirty hippies. You can resent them taking up park space and making too much noise. You can dislike their tactics and criticize their vagueness, disorganization, and lack of concrete goals or actual policy proposals. You can think they’re misguided and wrong.
But do not slander them as “just not wanting to work.” They’re doing the work of calling attention to major injustice and keeping the tradition of protest and dissent alive in this country.
As for the people on the 99% Tumblr–not the Occupy campers–it takes all of 20 minutes to write a screed on a piece of paper, take a picture, and put it on the internet, so you really have no basis whatsoever to judge these people’s use of their time or decide that they’re putting insufficient energy into finding or keeping a job or working for their own futures.
Telling a story on the internet is not the same as not wanting to work. Telling the truth about how hard things are for most people in America right now is not the same as not wanting to work.
Daring to say that “the circumstances that allowed this to happen to me are not okay” is not the same as not wanting to work.
The thinking that says that it is, is a relic of the way we were treated in middle school–that somebody speaking up about unfairness or calling attention to a problem was shamed as guilty of creating a problem where there wasn’t any when no one was speaking up.
I guess a lot of people learned that lesson well. I didn’t.
A lot of the Occupy and 99% protesters are college graduates or have advanced degrees. You really think they dragged themselves through that many years of school, and the work and expense involved, because they “just didn’t want to work?” A lot of them went deep into debt for their college educations. You think they did that because they *didn’t* want to get a job? Or because they believed parents, teachers, and employers who told them that they needed a college degree *in order to get a good job* these days? Do you really think that what they’re doing now is easier than working a regular job, earning a living and going about their daily lives? Do you really think they’d all still be out there, with winter coming, if there were enough jobs paying livable wages to go around and they could just go get one?
When the economy first went into recession and unemployment spiked, many of these same people now protesting and occupying–including myself–yelled for a new WPA and Federal Theater Project, for the government to directly create jobs and put people to work. We wanted desperately to work–to put the economy back together, to put the country back together, to contribute in meaningful and permanent ways to our culture and future.
We begged to be allowed to work, to do the work that this country needed done.
But our government didn’t go that route…it mostly tried instead to entice private enterprise into bringing jobs back. Private enterprise didn’t come through with that.
And now you say that we “just don’t want to work.” It makes the irony-processing center of my brain freeze up.
It might be funny if it didn’t hurt so much.
September 5, 2011
I so, so wanted to like this article from the Times, about what some recent graduates of prestigious universities are doing with their lives during the economic downturn instead of the stable, decently-paying jobs in their career field that just aren’t available. (Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out) I so, so almost did like it a lot. Obviously, we didn’t get past the headline without another cute moniker for the latest crop of highly-educated youth left aimless and adrift by the recession (how many names have we had? Gen Y, Gen Why?, The Millennials, the Peter Pan generation…I’ve had a couple of ciders and I’m losing track. What are we now?), but it came so close to hitting a mark of sorts concerning how young adults are coping with this economy, without a heavy dose of the condescension and belittlement that so often accompanies Times articles about the generation that supposedly just won’t grow up.
It’s not the subject matter of this article that I find objectionable, because I’m very interested in what young adults and especially the newest graduates are finding to do right now.
It’s the slight tone of amazement and false levity that’s a little annoying. A summary of the article could almost have read “Some graduates without corporate jobs decide to not be miserable, live lives anyway, do something creative.”
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
Some of the subjects profiled are Stephanie Kelly, who has two underwhelming part-time jobs, but sort of enjoys the spare time she has to cook and write; Amy Klein, who took up a friend’s offer to join a punk band when it was clear that a career in publishing wasn’t going to be forthcoming anytime soon; and Sarah Weinstein, who manages a bar while doing media relations for an animal shelter as a volunteer.
“No career? No prospects? No worries!” chirps the author in summation of the outlook of these graduates who are taking their situation in stride, or doing something unconventional instead. But this is simplistic and patronizing. No, there are plenty of worries associated with having no job stability, an irregular income, little affordable housing, no health insurance, and no idea when the economy might really turn around or how long you might be jerry-rigging a life this way. But you can let them terrify you into paralysis and submission and mope around your parents’ house sending out resumés that may get looked at sometime around 2015, or you can go out and do something–anything–anyway.
“They are thinking more in terms of creating their own kinds of life that interests them, rather than following a conventional idea of success and job security,” says Klein.
This is sort of how it’s always been for people who, for many reasons, can’t find a place in the mainstream or corporate job market. And I feel for the younger grads who are finding themselves not able to have the kinds of lives they were brought up to believe they should. And there are definitely bigger problems of economic justice when a significant portion of a highly educated generation just can’t make money. But that so many are relearning what they can and can’t do without, and what really matters to them, and questioning what kind of life they really want as opposed to what they once just assumed they’d have, I believe has the potential to be a great thing for America in the long run.
“They are a postponed generation,” intones Cliff Zukin, author of a study from Rutgers on the economic situation of recent graduates. But people profiled in the article like Kelly and Klein…well…they’re not. Just because they’re not doing what they might’ve been in a different economic climate doesn’t mean they’re waiting around with their lives on hold, as if the only life worth working for is comprised of traditional job stability, marriage, kids and home ownership.
Life doesn’t get postponed, though certain goals might; life gets lived, one way or another. Bad economies don’t stop time.
Why should writing, cooking, taking a punk band on the road or doing whatever paid job you can stand to do while you work as a volunteer or activist for another cause be considered stalling on the life path? Just because it’s a life path that doesn’t take for granted what the upper middle class used to, in the same time frame? Why is this necessarily considered being stuck in neutral rather than just in uncharted territory?
I’d be willing to bet, for instance, that the day will come when Ms. Klein, whatever she ultimately ends up doing, will be glad for the creative and organizational lessons that she learns on the road with her band, as well as feeling artistically fulfilled. Because life is funny and resonant and meaningful like that if you’re paying attention.
So godspeed to the young graduates who don’t see a reason to give up and stop living just because their expectations have been knocked around. I prefer their attitude to that of the experts telling us how stalled and postponed they are.
December 9, 2010
CNN asks this week “Is an internship the new entry-level job?” in an article profiling several recent college grads who have racked up half a dozen or more unpaid internships apiece while looking for full-time jobs in their degree areas.
Several things trouble me here.
“I want to do what I studied, and I don’t want to settle,” says Ani Kevork, who graduated in 2009 and is in her first paid internship after six unpaid internships. Six. unpaid. internships.
I’ve written before that people who know how to be constantly learning are never confined by their schooling. Kevork seems determined to be confined by her schooling. Maybe this recession will pass and she’ll get a job in her degree area. But then what happens to her in the next downturn or the one after?
I have to wonder what she studied; the article doesn’t say. I sympathize…who doesn’t want to be actually working in the area they studied for? But I have to take issue with the outlook that taking a job that isn’t what you studied for right out of college is settling. This is something that humanities and arts majors have always had to cope with. It’s the right thing to do for some people, and may be the wrong thing for some people, but if your priority is to be self-supporting, it’s often just the way to do that. And this is only even a choice for people whose parents are able and willing to financially support them indefinitely. Anyway, she’s settling in a different way: working without getting paid.
Which is obviously the second big problem. Companies are learning that they can get away with not paying their young workers, because we’re so desperate and fearful of being left out in the cold entirely. And if companies are actually using interns to fill functions that used to be paid positions, or if an unpaid internship is really a low-level job and not primarily educational in nature, then that’s also illegal. And after six (or nine, or 15) internships, an internship is no longer serving an educational function; you’re being taken advantage of. But this is a condition that we’re being told to accept, or risk falling behind young workers who are more willing to be endlessly taken advantage of.
Thirdly, as the article notes, “it’s no longer enough to get a degree. Employers expect a certain skill set of those they consider for a job post-graduation.”
But then, shouldn’t we be asking why students aren’t learning that skill set as part of their education? If a college education was once considered sufficient preparation for an entry-level job, and is no longer, to the extent that a post-graduation internship (or six) is now considered by default to be essentially mandatory, shouldn’t we be seriously questioning both colleges and employers why a college education is no longer measuring up to real skill requirements? Not that a classroom education can or should ever be expected to bestow everything a graduate needs to learn, but most students should’ve had some significant opportunity in the course of their college years to obtain and practice real professional skills. (I’ve estimated myself that probably about 75-80% of my real college education occurred outside the classroom.) And young workers can and should be expected to pick up skills and knowledge on the job.
I’m by no means unilaterally against internships, including unpaid ones in some circumstances. There are specialized skills that are best learned in the context of the real working world. Mentoring relationships with experienced professionals can be priceless. My own one and only internship (paid) was among the most important experiences of my life and continues to pay off professionally. But when we’re talking about years’ worth of multiple unpaid internships now being the only way that many young workers can stay engaged in the labor market, and we’re expected to accept this as just the way it is now, the very concept of what an internship is supposed to be is being abused to the point of meaninglessness, along with the skills of young workers. This is something closer to acceptance of a new version of indentured servitude.
And lastly, while the article touches on the statistic that currently only 41% of Millennials have a full-time job, it doesn’t explicitly make a connection between this recent acceptance of unpaid internships in place of entry-level jobs and our generation’s supposed Peter Pan syndrome. So, for future reference (ahem, New York Times), the next time anyone’s wondering why 20-somethings can’t seem to move out on our own, get married, and start having kids, consider that maybe it’s because employers don’t seem to think that they should have to pay us.
August 28, 2010
As many people probably noticed, the New York Times Magazine did another long piece (“What Is It About 20-Somethings?”) on the Millennial generation’s struggle for economic independence and continuing failure to meet “markers of maturity” last week, which I actually give some credit to for being slightly more nuanced and objective than most of the Times’ coverage of the topic, investigating the work of social scientists who say that “emerging adulthood” is a whole new stage of human development that needs to be accounted for versus those who disagree, and the history of how life stages have been classified as necessary states of psychological development rather than cultural phenomena. Salon.com ran a companion piece from one of their bloggers, a more stereotypical lament (“I became an adult at 22: Why can’t you?“) that 20-somethings can’t seem to grow up and get out of their parents’ houses. Both garnered many hundreds of responses.
A lot of commenters say that the problem is that 20-somethings are either entitled or spoiled; we just won’t or can’t figure out how to do what it takes to be independent: we won’t accept a lower standard of housing, we won’t live with roommates, we won’t work multiple jobs, we won’t do without our luxury coffee drinks and expensive toys, we have to have our parents paying our iPhone bills, we just don’t understand how harsh real life is and how hard the future will be for us, having grown up so coddled and with no work ethic.
And there are a lot of people, bless them, attempting to be helpful and supportive, insisting that no, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to survive out there on what entry-level jobs pay.
This culminated, for me, when I commented tangentially on a Times comment board (for an article concerning people whose total 99 weeks of unemployment insurance is about to run out) in response to someone who had insisted that it was not, that yes, it IS possible to survive in New York on under $400 per week. That actually, I was doing pretty well in the weeks that I made $400. In reply, another commenter said that I must be “either 20 years old, living in a cardboard box, or a liar.”
Except that here I am, and a lot of people my age, not 20 years old, not living in a cardboard box, doing what one faction says we just won’t do and what another says we can’t.
And I don’t write this to claim that everyone should be able to do what I do, or that I’m necessarily representative of more recent college grads (the economy hadn’t yet *completely* sacked out when I graduated six years ago), or that scarcity of fair living wages isn’t a problem for young workers, or to belittle 20-somethings who can’t find a job right now and/or have made a rational and well-informed calculation to live with their parents for a while, or to complain about my situation. Just to point out that a lot of us ARE doing what almost every side of this increasingly boneheaded debate says that we are not: growing up, becoming independent, and doing whatever it takes to stay that way.
So here’s the snapshot of my experience: I’m 28 years old and I live in New York City on under $400 per week:
I live in upper Manhattan, in a lovely neighborhood which, as I’ve said before, I will not name, since it remains relatively undiscovered (and therefore relatively affordable) and we like it that way. Our apartment is rent-regulated, meaning that the rent can only be raised a certain percentage per year as long as the household income is under $170K. Even so, I spend more than half my income on rent most months. (As a yardstick, “affordable” and secure housing is generally considered as costing no more than one third of your income.)
The neighborhood is lovely, but the building management is not. It’s an old building, probably about 90 years, as we were told by a repairman working on the gas lines that originally powered the light fixtures, and it has problems common to old buildings, but our management company does not know how, nor do they care, to actually maintain and take care of it. We’ve had repeated and chronic issues with leaks, collapsed ceilings, buckling floors, electrical outages, gas leaks (one that nearly killed a neighbor and left us without cooking heat for a month), and lack of heat and hot water in winter. Our bathroom pretty much falls apart every six months, because our building management is unclear on how grout is supposed to work.
Why don’t we just move? Well, moving’s expensive and disruptive, and for our price range, we could only afford a building with different problems, and it wouldn’t be across the street from Central Park.
I work in the performing arts, and no, I did not expect to leave college with a drama degree and get a job with a living wage in my area of expertise. I worked a lot of different jobs to support myself while I worked my way up in my field. For four years while I worked gigs that paid no more than small stipends, I supported myself working in coffee shops, and then doing temp work. When the market for temp workers tanked in early 2009, I had little choice left but to support myself by my theater work alone. Some substantial gigs materialized in the nick of time.
I stage manage full-time now and make my living doing it. I am almost always working multiple jobs. I am well-acquainted with 12-14 hour days and 80-hour weeks, though those are becoming less common now that I don’t have a “day” job. (I actually had to be reminded by a friend that in most quarters, it is not considered “spoiled” to be able to make a living from one job.) It’s hard, but I’m thankful to be this busy, because it means I survive. I like my work; I’m thankful for all of it that I can take. My income isn’t stable, though; in particularly good months, I save as much as I can for the inevitable slow times.
I split rent on a tiny apartment with two roommates. We don’t have a television, so we don’t pay for cable, let alone flatscreen, high-def, DVR, whatever. I have a radio, and otherwise get most of my entertainment online and from the public library. Since I work at night, I don’t go out much to bars or movies. I don’t have an iPhone; I have a 3-year-old cell phone, the one that came free with my calling plan. I have a Macbook, which I saved for a year and a half for, and which isn’t a luxurious toy, but a professional necessity. The one I was using before this was 9 years old and 4th-hand.
A confession: I finally have an iPod. I wouldn’t even have bought one; a friend gave me her old one when my 12-year-old knockoff discman finally broke.
I don’t have a car, and will probably never own one again. Public transit is everything here, but the MTA wants to raise the monthly fare from $89 to $130 and do away with unlimited rides, which will be a real hardship for me since I’m often working multiple jobs per day.
I don’t buy new things very much. I use things until they’re not usable anymore. I have kitchen utensils and pots that date from my parents’ marriage. I only buy clothes on sale.
I don’t eat out much. I know how to cook, and I cook large dishes that can get me through a week: roast chicken and potatoes, casseroles, quiches, squash, rice and beans, and stews. I eat a lot of pasta, cheese, apples, and peanut butter. I buy produce in season. Still, my credit card is sometimes my grocery safety net. (I have hypoglycemia, so I can’t just eat less when my budget gets stretched thin.)
We don’t have a microwave, and we don’t have air conditioning.
Almost needless to say, I don’t have health insurance. My union does offer incredibly affordable insurance, but the way it’s allocated makes it problematic–you have to have worked a certain number of contract weeks semi-annually to remain eligible. It would be a great deal for someone in a long-running Broadway show. For someone in my situation, however, it would provide no continuity or security whatsoever, as I’d always have to be looking backwards and forwards three months to see if I’ll still have insurance at any given moment. I’m enrolled at a community clinic in Chelsea, with a generous income-based sliding fee scale, where I pay $30-$60 to see my doctor.
I don’t have a gym membership. My job entails a lot of physical activity, and I walk for both pleasure and exercise.
I get my hair cut once or twice per year at most. I do my own laundry. I’ve had the same pair of winter boots since I was 15 years old. It’s probably way past time for me to see a dentist.
So that’s it. I don’t think I’m whiny or entitled; I’m a fairly low-maintenance person who doesn’t need a lot of entertainment outside of my work, which I know I’m fortunate to have. I don’t think I’m living a luxurious or coddled existence here. I take care of myself, but I do without a lot of things that many people consider necessities, and that a lot of older people take for granted. This is just my reality, and I’ve worked hard for it, and so it peeves me to no end to be told that young adults just don’t have the work ethic or discipline or value independence enough to do this.
Because we are doing it.
July 18, 2010
It’s funny the things you miss when you’re in tech and preview week for a new musical….like a Times article that scores spectacularly in not one but two of my big journalistic pet peeve departments: picking bad poster children, and grossly mischaracterizing the Millennial generation.
The article is “American Dream is Elusive for New Generation.” It profiles Scott Nicholson, who supposedly has been fruitlessly looking for work for two years out of college. The only problem?
He hasn’t been. He received an offer for, and turned down, a $40,000 per year job with an insurance company, because he thought it was a dead-end job. Still living with his parents (and thus not worrying about rent) and sending out a handful of resumes per week, he also started a small lawn-mowing and garden business to pay some of his living expenses. He’s had a good shot at at least two jobs in two years: the insurance job which he thought was beneath him, or expanding the lawn and garden freelancing (the article says he’s got half a dozen clients, which would seem to me to portend the potential for further success). He hasn’t struck out in the job market at all; he’s failed to find a job straight out of college that will provide him with the easy success and standard of living he’d come to take for granted.
I don’t want to pile on to Scott too much more; I think he’s an entitled brat, but over 1400 comments on the original article have now eloquently pointed that out to him, and the fact that his name will be forever linked to this article and the picture he painted of himself in Google’s search algorithms is probably going to prove more than sufficient reproof. I want to discuss some of the problems with his kind of lazy reporting and the responses it engenders, its effects on the rest of us, and how–in spite of itself–it points to what we really need to do.
The comments on the story were really fascinating, and I dare say more enlightening than the article itself, and they almost all fell into one of these categories:
1. Scott’s a spoiled brat who needs to learn that no work is beneath him in times like this.
2. This just proves what I always knew, that Millennials are entitled narcissistic losers who think everything in life should be tailored to be “fulfilling” to them.
3. Uh, I’m a Millennial, and no, Scott does not represent us or our difficulties or view of work.
4. Good for Scott for holding out for a decently paying job, and shame on everyone telling him to compromise! (This was a very small minority of responses.)
And one of the big problems with reporting like this is its ability to engender response #2; it feeds the confirmation bias of people who already want to believe this. It doesn’t shed any light on actual obstacles to getting living wage jobs for recent college graduates; it only provides fodder to those who would prefer to believe that we’re just unrealistic and spoiled and therefore to blame for all of our own problems. And if the paper of record succeeds in confirming this fact to enough of our elders? It’s scary. I really can’t tell at this point whether the Times is just being hapless in its selection of article subjects, or if it’s actually intent on promoting this kind of prejudice against young adults. Or if its writers and editors truly have no effing clue how hard it is out there for 20-somethings who aren’t incredibly privileged and so this was really what they thought was a good example. Really, in a city with over 200 Starbucks locations, they couldn’t send a reporter into one to find a college-educated 25-year-old working a $16,000/year job and ask why?
Also, there’s the potential for this to embolden lawmakers who claim that extensions of benefits like unemployment and food stamps aren’t necessary, or are actually prolonging joblessness, because they encourage dependency and a sense of entitlement to collect a paycheck for nothing. Who really believe (and there are those who do) that people on unemployment would rather just sit around collecting government money than take a non-perfect job.
But most people on unemployment are not sitting around happily turning down $40K jobs. They actually cannot find a job. Most people on unemployment do not have their parents paying their rent.
Then I’m also troubled by response #4, and its presumed polar opposition to response #1. Because in part of its basic observation, it’s correct: wages suck. Wages have been stagnant since the late 1970′s. Service sector wages particularly suck. And young adults are not wrong to make the case that we need to be paid more, as the cost of a college education has grown disproportionately large compared to expectable salary in return. (Particularly disturbing is the phenomenon of entry-level jobs masquerading as unpaid internships.) But the attitude that we should just hold out to be paid what we’re worth doesn’t get us anything: not credibility, not work experience, not independence, not the self-knowledge and resilience that comes from doing a job and doing it well in order to survive–not because it’s necessarily your dream job. It does zero good at this point to refuse to take basically decent jobs to protest that we aren’t being paid what we should be, because millions of older, more experienced, more desperate people are lined up and happy to take them. And we’ll still wind up looking like clueless brats.
And those comments, and the off-base posturing of the whole article, really go straight to the question of what the American Dream is. The Times would have us accept that the American Dream is to waltz into a corporate finance job straight out of college with no work experience, with a salary sufficient to support a consumptive upper-middle class lifestyle, and the fact that Scott can’t do it even with all his family’s connections on his side, shows that the American Dream is dead for 20-somethings.
I really hope that that’s not what the American Dream is. I don’t think it is. And I think that we need to be able to articulate what it is to us in order to counter the notions propagated by this article.
June 26, 2010
I was tipped off to this amazing video blog project from the HERE Arts Center by a director friend. The MADE HERE Project is exploring, through video interviews with New York performing artists of all stripes, a broad range of the challenges and issues facing those working in the performing arts, and telling the stories of how a number of individual artists have responded to the problems that attend this line of work. Currently available issues of 3 episodes apiece are “Creative Real Estate,” on the issue of finding and keeping affordable space, and “Day & Night Jobs,” about survival jobs and the constant negotiation between finances and the erratic nature of performing arts work. Upcoming episodes this summer will include Activism, Technology, and Family Balance; I’m particularly looking forward to the last one.
I watched all the available episodes straight through. Things that struck me: the disassociation between a popular conception of the arts as being by and for the elite, and the realities of the artists profiled, most of whom have at least one additional job, or live or work in circumstances that many people would consider intolerable, having to constantly be scavenging for space or resources or paying work. The seeming lack of a real question as to whether they should be doing what they’re doing, whether they should make a living in some more stable way. And what looks like an almost complete inability to see or consider impossibility. There is only ever a question of how.
June 22, 2010
I’m actually about a week late on my response to this article. Sue me; I’ve been working on two separate productions this week.
In a June 11 article, “Long Road to Adulthood is Growing Longer,” the New York Times reports from the findings of researchers from the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, purporting to show that young people are actually taking longer to reach adulthood these days.
The disservice that this article does to young adults begins in its second sentence, declaring that “a growing body of research shows that the real Peter Pans are not the boomers, but the generations that have followed.”
This is a careless characterization of 20- and 30-somethings that, on top of everything else we’re facing, we really don’t need, thanks anyway Patricia Cohen. Peter Pan, remember, deliberately determined to remain a child forever. He wasn’t hobbled in his quest for maturity and independence by a major economic collapse, spiraling higher education costs, untenable health care and housing costs, and a 20% unemployment/under-employment rate. He chose eternal childhood and a fantasy existence over what he saw as the drudgery and hypocrisy of the adult world.
Really, New York Times, does that sound like American young adults of today?
Once again, like the article from the Chicago Tribune I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the Times reporter takes at face value, without much critical inquiry, assumptions that fewer young adults meeting certain commonly accepted markers of maturity actually means that young adults are less mature (which, as I’ve said before, I might agree that they are, but for far different reasons). There’s no consideration for the possibility that perhaps, in the face of wildly altered circumstances from those in which our parents and grandparents came of age, young adults are simply making different choices. And what’s more, that those choices might be rational and well-informed.
Early in the article, Cohen cites as an incidental example of adulthood taking longer to take hold the provision of the new health care law which allows adult children to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies up to age 26. But this is no indication whatsoever that young adults are less adult, but rather that wages have been stagnant for 30 years while insurance premiums have spiraled out of range of what a college graduate with an entry level or hourly wage job can reasonably afford. How does that reflect on our maturity, rather than on the unfairness and irrationality of our haphazard health care delivery systems?
Frank F. Furstenberg, leader of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, is quoted as saying “A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults.”
Is it that we’re not yet adults, or that young adulthood now holds different challenges (among which I would include an educational system that actually discourages rather than encourages maturity and independence) and more choices than it used to? Most of the anecdotes contained in the article are about young women taking longer to complete their education, and thus marrying much later and delaying childbearing. But, among other factors, birth control is legal now. It was once assumed that young adult women would marry and have children by their early 20′s, simply because they didn’t have many other options. That wasn’t better for their personal maturity, to do what society assumed they would because they lacked compelling career options; it was far worse. (If you haven’t read it, Betty Friedan makes the case eloquently in The Feminine Mystique, a book I enjoyed and identified with far more than I thought I would.) But the Times article laments that according to a study out from Princeton, “Marriage and parenthood–once seen as prerequisites for adulthood–are now viewed more as lifestyle choices.”
I’m sorry, a “lifestyle choice” is whether to live on the East Side or West Side, to drive or bike to work, to cook at home or eat out, to get a cat or a dog. To marry and have children are serious, life-altering choices involving the fates of at least two other people. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to do those things, but to do either right now would completely upend my career pursuits and independence.
Indeed, I don’t see anyone among the people profiled in the article who are Peter Pans–deliberate children–but rather people whose careers or economic circumstances necessitated further education, whose life trajectories simply didn’t take the courses they assumed they would (and how many people’s actually do?), and in the cases of the marriage-delayers, who honestly took their feelings into account in wisely not rushing into marriage at 23. When did honest self-reflection in delaying a major life decision become lack of maturity?
Things get more interesting on the website of the newsletter for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood. It seems that much of this group’s current research agenda is based on a vision of the past that, well, isn’t all that true. One of the postulates shaping their body of research is stated as being that
The time period between age 18 and 34 has changed dramatically in the past several decades. Where once young adults moved in lockstep progression through the stages of adulthood—graduating from high school, leaving home, going to college or getting a job, marrying, and starting a family—today this path is no longer ordered and sequential.
Sure, it’s true that young adulthood has changed dramatically in the past few decades. But the assumption and ordering of most of these rites of passage are incredibly skewed towards the middle and upper classes of the mid- to late 20th century. This sequence was far from the lockstep norm for most people, for most of American history. Most states had no compulsory education through the end of the 19th century; it was not assumed that most people would graduate from, or even attend, high school. There has never been a time when most people graduated from or even attended college. Prior to the industrial revolution, many people never “got a job,” but learned a trade through an apprenticeship to a family member or neighbor, or inherited a family business or a farm. It wasn’t the lockstep following of these steps that used to make people adults by their late teens; it was the fact that they’d had to do things for themselves their entire lives.
Public awareness and social policies have not yet caught up to the changes. Many features of U.S. society operate on the assumption that reaching adulthood occurs much earlier than it ordinarily does today.
But how is it established that adulthood is actually occurring later? I agree that many social policies and institutions don’t serve young adults well, but that it’s because they presume a level of economic enfranchisement that’s out of reach for young graduates in the current job market.
The website criticizes earlier media portrayals of “Twixsters” and “Adultolescents,” and says that the Research Network “takes young people seriously.” But that is not the implication of what its leader, Mr. Furstenberg, said to the New York Times: “We have not developed and strengthened institutions to serve young adults, because we’re still living with the archaic idea that people enter adulthood in their late teens or early twenties.”
But I don’t see any likelihood that this view is going to result in young adults being taken more seriously, rather than less. If we’re shaping policies and institutions on a new paradigm that 18-34 year-olds (yep, that’s the age range given for this new period of young adulthood on the website) are in fact not effective adults, how does that not lead to taking them less seriously, as able to be self-directing and fully engaged in and responsible for their own lives, choices, and contributions to society and democracy? What Furstenberg blindly and rather deceptively confuses, as the Chicago Tribune article did, is personal maturity and capacity for independence with achievement of economic and material goals.
If it’s an archaic idea that we become adults in our late teens or early twenties, then I think we need to start looking backwards for guidance on how to take young adults seriously. Because this forward-looking vision of Mr. Furstenberg’s of recognizing ever less-adult “adults” is not going to help us establish realistic ways to help people reach self-sufficient adulthood in a timely manner. It will further justify the social exclusion of young adults from full enfranchisement and economic participation. It asks us to further infantilize young adults rather than seriously considering remedies to the economic circumstances that make full independence so difficult. This view itself is helping to lengthen the road to adulthood, not providing solutions for young adults who are seeking greater independence.
May 31, 2010
A friend sent me an article last weekend from the Chicago Tribune, entitled “Transition to Adulthood Takes Longer than Ever,” filled with now-familiar tales of the impact of the Great Recession on the career goals and financial independence of young adults: low-wage service sector jobs, college graduates returning to live with parents, and career and further-education plans on indefinite hold. According to the MacArthur Research Network, far fewer young adults in the year 2009 had reached five common rites of passage, known as “traditional markers of maturity,” than in 1960. The five markers are: living independently, completion of schooling, full-time employment, marriage, and children.
The problem is, I think the article (and a great many like it), as well as popular imagination, falsely conflates two different phenomenon—that of extended childhood and adolescence, and that of increasing economic barriers to specific, material, culturally desired behaviors. Both may very well be real, and absolutely are related, but I wonder if there aren’t also real and negative consequences to young adults of our common, but false, conflation of emotional maturity—or real adulthood—with economic enfranchisement. I don’t necessarily think there’s a problem with using the incidence of these milestones to help track broader economic or lifestyle trends, but the way in which these metrics being used more colloquially to judge adulthood is deceptive and superficial.
Obviously, the five markers are only easily-measurable stand-ins for real characteristics of adulthood, and by using the former to talk about the latter, we risk mistaking them for each other.
The only one I can easily agree with, for the most part, is the first. I think it’s extremely difficult to know yourself fully as a self-sufficient person, and your capabilities, if you haven’t lived away from your parents–and college dorm living doesn’t count. (And even then, other cultures don’t judge this to be the case; it’s common around the world for three or more generations to share a household continuously.) The others have fairly gaping logical holes when it comes to their usefulness as representations of actual maturity. Haven’t plenty of woefully immature and ill-prepared people graduated from high school and college? Gotten full-time jobs? Gotten married too young to partners they didn’t know well enough? Had children when they were in no emotional or financial state to support them very well?
Isn’t it a more mature position to put off marriage and children if you know you’re too young or not financially secure?
Additionally, the traditional five criteria of maturity exclude certain groups of people almost entirely from economic consideration as full adults. Arts professionals and freelancers, for instance, may be very unlikely to have a single, stable, full-time job, or consistent full-time employment. For instance, though I started working at 15, have often worked 80-hour weeks, held multiple jobs at once, and been consistently financially self-sufficient since graduation from college…I’ve never held a full-time job. I probably never will.
Same-sex marriage is still illegal in 45 states. According to the traditional markers of maturity, gay and lesbian citizens are definitionally excluded from full adulthood merely by virtue of sexual orientation, regardless of their desire to marry or participation in long-term committed relationships. Six states have outlawed or severely restricted gays, lesbians, and same-sex partners from adopting or fostering children, and regardless of state law, same-sex couples face far higher logistical hurdles even to have biological children (and clearly are drastically less likely to experience unplanned pregnancies—the cause of 50% of all children). So on the count of having children, again, LGBT citizens are far less likely to be counted as full adults than their straight counterparts.
The common usage of the markers of maturity designates one particular model of work and family life as mature or adult–completion of college, obtaining a full-time job, heterosexual marriage and children–and effectively discounts different life choices which equally mature people might make as valid models of adulthood: lifelong singlehood, whether chosen or not; childlessness, whether chosen or not; long-term partnership without marriage; declining high school or college attendance if it doesn’t fit your goals in life; creative or independent work which would never be described as a full-time “job;” living in a multi-generational household if that would be the best thing for your family.
When we’re talking about whether young people are taking longer to grow up, I think we need to talk about the real characteristics of adulthood that the “traditional markers of maturity” are only arbitrary representations of. Goal-orientation and completion rather than school completion. Dedication to an occupation or meaningful work rather than full-time job. Sustenance of long-term, intimate relationships (including with lifelong friends) rather than marriage; reliability rather than simply having had children, which, by itself, in no way demonstrates the skills which we wish it did. And also the traits necessary for a rich and independent life, especially during financially difficult times, which aren’t explicitly represented by the five markers at all: good judgment, self-direction, resilience, creativity and problem-solving, adaptability and ability to adjust expectations.
I think it is true that people are taking longer to grow up; I’ve seen people only a few years younger than I am, almost completely unable to function confidently in the world: to go to the library to apply for a library card or register to vote or pick up tax forms, to conduct their own financial affairs, to cook, to become familiar with their neighborhood and find their way around, to make decisions or act independently of others’ opinions or approval. But it’s not for lack of a residence, college degree, job, or marriage; it’s some kind of basic lack of engagement and confidence with the world, of which I’m not sure of the origin.
I fear that if what we’re telling young adults is that being an adult is contingent on these particular markers, and they give every indication of remaining out of financial reach for the foreseeable future, it’s a discouragement from thinking of themselves—and behaving—as real adults. There’s an implication that you haven’t accomplished the right things if you haven’t accomplished these things, and that’s a discouragement for young adults to think confidently and flexibly of their real options and choices, and an encouragement of superficiality. That’s the opposite of what we should want to accomplish.
Further, there are troubling implications for civil rights. Many of our rights as citizens are conferred or denied on the basis of age as a proxy for presumed maturity: not just the commonly celebrated vices of ability to buy alcohol and tobacco, to gamble, visit a strip club or get a tattoo; but obtaining a full driver’s license, voting, running for public office, having the confidentiality of your medical treatment, and your bodily autonomy, guaranteed; military service; ability to sign a binding contract. If it becomes commonly accepted that people who have not attained particular milestones are not actually full adults, then the presumption of their right or ability to participate fully in democratic society could be imperiled.