September 5, 2011
What we’re doing instead
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.