May 31, 2010

Taking longer to grow up?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 1:17 pm by chavisory

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.

April 1, 2010

Contentment; or, blaming the poor for the wrong things entirely

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 12:55 am by chavisory

I was having yet another debate with an old friend this week via facebook; it’s been a common occurrence in the wake of the passage of the health care bill.  The debate quickly turned from my instigating question to the subjects of socialism and the dangers, and advantages, of welfare.  My friend said,

“There are too many people that work very hard to make a living to just give everything they have worked for to people that have not. When a society makes everything equal, the country begins to not be as productive, because people loose a sense of working hard to earn a living.”

I don’t mean to single her or her views out for judgment, because they are far from unique, at least in my recent experience as I wrote yesterday.  After I argued that in the first place, that’s not what socialism is, and secondly, it isn’t happening, she told me of a family she knows from the school where she works: neither parent works; they’re both on disability, and can’t seem to stop having children.  All five of their current children have some degree of mental or developmental disability and are all receiving disability payments.  And in this school, which largely serves low-income families, this family is far more representative of the norm than the exception.

My sister, a registered nurse, when she works overtime, sees close to half of her paycheck withheld in taxes and FICA.  Who does she get angry at?  The military; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  The crimes of Wall Street and the bank bailouts, the fraud that toppled the world economy?  The sheer numerical fact that there are more baby boomer retirees than there are younger workers supporting them?  George W’s unprecedented level of deficit spending, largely on tax cuts for the richest?

Nope: the welfare mothers and illegal immigrants on the neonatal ward.

Okay, I said–even if these parents are not really disabled or too mentally ill to work, and are therefore committing social security fraud and getting away with just not working…even if it’s true that the illegal immigrant teen mothers brag about being able to take advantage of the welfare system…look at their life.  Would you want it?

I don’t necessarily mean materially, because they probably do have a car, computer, television, cell phone, DVD player, whatever.  But look at their real quality of life.  Is it really a life that you’d want to live?  Is it a life that you’d trade places to have?

Or do you think that the government does too much for people, protects them too much from the natural consequences of bad choices?  Look around your city streets on a cold night.  Are there no homeless people?  A third of them are veterans, and a quarter are severely mentally ill.  Don’t worry; the world is still more than capricious enough that the wrong choices, or simple lack of resilience, can devastate lives.  NYC has had an increase of one third in the homeless population this year alone.  I promise you, that surge is not made up of people who just decided they’d rather not work anymore.

So be content.  They’ve made their choices, and the consequences of those choices, I think, are punishment enough for them.  You’ve made yours, and if you have a life, and work, and family that you’re proud of, there’s nothing at all that you need to envy or resent from the poor.

I just don’t understand this kind of vitriol towards people who have so much less.  I really think that a lot of revulsion towards the very poor, the homeless, people dependent on government aid, comes from personal fear, that we ourselves could’ve been in such a position, if things had been a little different, if we’d been born into a less fortunate situation.  Every time I see a bag lady on the street, I know that that could’ve been me, and the confrontation of that knowledge is both chilling and humbling.

So the next person who thinks that the poor are getting away with something, that you’d be happier about your income tax return if you made a lot less money, that it’s easy or carefree to need public assistance or that the poor have too much given to them, this is my invitation to you:  sell your car and move here, to NYC.  Get a rent-stabilized apartment in Washington Heights and a café job for $7 or $8 an hour.  Good luck getting your landlord to deal with the rats or fix the bathroom ceiling when it caves in, and oh yeah, they’re raising subway fares again this year at the same time they’re drastically cutting back service, which is going to make it a lot harder to get to your opening shift at 4:45 AM.  Fantastic, you’ll be poor!

Sound good?  If not, think about why not.  Because you do actually have the enjoyment and appreciation of the things you’ve worked for and earned in life.  Because you know that you are fortunate.

I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden this week, and at the conclusion of the book, as he looks back on his experiment with simple, deliberate life in the woods (where he actually only lived in his tiny, hand built cabin for about two years; he wasn’t a hermit or misanthrope), he gives much of the most eloquent advice in the book, urging all of his readers not necessarily to do as he’s done, giving up every superfluous comfort, but to wake up to the realities of their own lives.

It’s easy to misread much of the ranting in Walden as a condemnation of a materially comfortable existence, but it isn’t; it’s a condemnation of the illusion that life is what we acquire, of a life lived in material riches and comfort, but without meaning, hospitality, reflection, or purpose.  Someone who has those things within himself, Thoreau says, is always richer, and far more of a whole person, than someone without them.  Stop worrying about how badly other people conduct their lives, and make what you truly want of yours, because someone who has set out deliberately to live the best life they know how, never has anything to envy from those who have not.

Except that I envy anyone whose bathroom ceiling doesn’t cave in every 6 months……

March 29, 2010

Not a hipster on food stamps….

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 12:26 am by chavisory

I’m a little late on a response to this, from last week.  I did participate a bit in the comments section there, but it riled me enough that I couldn’t really articulate a full response–my feelings about it have been fairly volatile.

Basically, Salon did an article entitled “Hipsters on Food Stamps,” with the tag line “They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies.  Got a problem with that?” and what could’ve been an insightful piece on a group that we don’t normally think of as using food stamps–the young, childless, highly educated intellectual/creative class–now finding themselves turning to them, or about the fact that it’s actually possible to eat decently on a limited budget, got turned into an article practically guaranteed not to shed enlightenment but to elicit reflexive outrage at entitled young “hipsters” using government handouts to buy luxury foods.

One of the subjects of the first article wrote a response about how he was portrayed in an unnecessarily frivolous manner, and some of the real issues he’s dealing with, which is more than worth reading.

My friend Steven wrote a very personal response today, so I figured I’d better get my act together, but what really elicits the following is a commonality of anger and indignation I’m hearing from both family members and friends–some of whom may be reading, and I hope they’ll comment–at people who use public assistance and the low-income: presumed beneficiaries of things like the health care bill, benefits that were part of the stimulus package, and a more progressive tax code this year.  “The government just makes it too easy for people to not do what they’re supposed to do,” my mother said.  A fairly common refrain from a friend with whom I debate often is “At what point are people ever going to be allowed to fail without the government to step in and save them?” I’ve heard more than once that I wouldn’t be so supportive of Obama, or progressive taxes generally, if I made more money, and a whole lot of consternation over the threat of policies which “take money away from people who work and give it to those who don’t.”

The first misapprehension to get out of the way is that we do in fact take a lot of money from people who work and just give it those who don’t.  We don’t.  You can’t be an able-bodied adult and just decide you don’t want to work, and live off of public assistance.  Almost every available program has some kind of work hours or placement requirement.

Secondly, there seems to be a perception that the poor have it easy, or that we’re poor only because we don’t work hard enough, or enjoy being able to take advantage of government money.  So let me share some personal experience:

I applied for food stamps once.  I was in my stage management internship, on a stipend of something like $216 per week after taxes, if memory serves.  I.e. $864/month.  I actually tried to survive on that for a few weeks, tightly rationing 3 meals a day, no snacks…and then I was just too hungry.  My stomach hurt all the time.  I couldn’t think.  I sold a toaster on Craigslist for $10 to do my laundry one week.  So I went to apply for food stamps.  It was a horrible, degrading experience which I do not wish to repeat.

I certainly wasn’t ashamed nor did I feel undeserving of them–I was after all working for very little–even my hyper-conservative, solidly anti-social safety net Republican father said “You’ve paid taxes; it’s just YOUR money.”  Still, I felt…strange, out of place, going to the food stamps office.  Like a well-educated, ambitious person like me shouldn’t need this, or someone who’s voluntarily gone to work in the arts has made their own bed and shouldn’t have the nerve to ask for help.

But if you weren’t ashamed to begin with, they’d make you ashamed. In the waiting room of the food stamps office we were treated like criminals.  Very stupid criminals.  Appointments were running 3 hours behind schedule and we literally were not allowed to ask any questions about why, or what was going on, or if we might reschedule.  The room was windowless and I had a claustrophobia-induced panic attack.  I finally saw a social services worker, who talked to me like I was a dimwitted child who’d done something bad.  I was crying by that point.

I got denied for not providing a FULL bank statement, which was just a level of intrusiveness that I couldn’t deal with, so I never even got to the stage where you have to be fingerprinted.  I didn’t bother to appeal; the initial experience had been tiring and depressing enough.

It’s not easy being poor; it’s hard, and it’s not only those who don’t want to work hard enough, or didn’t bother to get an education, or had children too young, who wind up poor.  Sometimes, it’s people like me.  Especially now.

I don’t consider myself a hipster; I’m nowhere near cool enough, to start with.  I still qualify for food stamps based on income, though I’m sure many people, including some friends, would think that I don’t deserve them: I’m single, childless, relatively healthy and knowingly entered a low-paying artistic profession.  And while usually I say that I’d have to be much more desperate than I am to repeat the first experience I had…sometimes lately I wonder if it would actually be the more responsible thing to do to go apply again.  I’d be able to look out for my health better.  I’d be able to save more money and pay down my remaining credit card balances faster (which I ran up mainly with groceries), and food stamps are a good deal for everyone: they return, last I heard, $1.71 to the economy for every government dollar spent.  So every person on food stamps is actually helping the economy and their neighborhood, especially if they spend them on locally grown food, more than they would by struggling nobly and unnecessarily.

My point, I suppose, and the unintended lesson of the pair of Salon articles, is that it’s easy to condemn with superficial information.  But reality on an individual basis is much more complicated.

March 19, 2010

My generation, part 3

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 12:07 pm by chavisory

A few weeks ago, a note went out on the listserv of the Demosthenian Literary Society, the debate society of which I was a member in college at UGA, alerting members and alumni of extreme budget cuts that the state of Georgia would be asking of educational institutions, as well as cutbacks in a variety of state and local resources and services.  Potentially on the chopping block are hundreds of faculty and TA jobs, Athens’ NPR affiliate radio station WUGA, 4H programs and cooperative extension branches across the state (cooperative extensions are usually departments within a university’s agricultural program, which provide a wide range of assistance and information to local farmers, or anyone really, on agricultural issues, natural resources management, or livestock care), and the state Botanical Gardens.

It was suggested by a chancellor that the budget gap could be closed by a 77% tuition hike.

Naturally and understandably, these proposals caused fear, concern, and anger among the student population, and a lively listserv discussion ensued about the most effective methods of protest.

One alumna, on the other hand, thought that when so many people across the state are suffering the loss of crucial resources, that college kids who weren’t paying tuition to begin with just looked spoiled and entitled for complaining about the loss of a radio station.  (Most in-state students at UGA have eight semesters of tuition covered by the HOPE scholarship, which was the model for Missouri’s later A+ program.)  Called out for appearing to suggest that college students who do, after all, pay taxes, don’t have a right to protest in their own interests, the alumna replied, “Again, didn’t say you didn’t have the right to complain, only pointed out that you look spoiled and petty for doing so.”

I argued that some of the resources in danger of being lost, like the Botanical Gardens, were not the “fringe benefits” that she characterized them as, but part of the very soul of Athens, GA, critical components of our education, that the cuts would hit students who DO pay tuition as hard as those who don’t, and that a 77% tuition increase would put the price of UGA on par with private schools for out-of-state students like me, which could gravely hurt UGA’s academic future.

This is what she said:

“[W]hether or not you like it, the public perception of college students, particularly those who have a free ride care of the state, is that they are relatively spoiled. You’re in that strange stage of life where legally you’re an adult but still rely so much on others to provide for you. (As one student earlier in this debate stated, “if I need more money I just call my parents.”) While few students past freshman year receive state sponsored educations, I also gather that few students work while in college to pay their own tuition (for beer money–yes, tuition–not so much.)

So yes, complaining that you’re losing a radio station does seem incredibly petty and selfish to a parent who has just heard his/her child’s school is going to increase class size and/or eliminate extra-curricular activities. It does seem silly to a person who has found out his/her local health clinic is reducing hours and services. To those people you do look like entitled kids pouting.”

In other words, it’s not that you don’t have a right to complain, it’s just that you’re spoiled, entitled, silly, petty, and immature for actually doing so.  Shut up and take it like everyone else.
Then the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, on Tuesday, hosted a discussion of the student protests in the University of California system (several university systems witnessed student marches and walk-outs on the National Day of Action for Public Education), where students are facing a 32% tuition hike.  Not quite a 77% increase, but enough to make college unaffordable or student loan debt unbearable for many low-middle-income students and their families.  A Wall Street Journal op-ed (unfortunately you have to subscribe to access the whole article; another brilliant response here reprinted a little bit more of it, though) had charged that while the student protests co-opted the language of earlier civil rights movements, it was really about nothing more than money, “entitlement mentality and self-absorption.”  Brian’s panelists, thankfully, countered this characterization.
For my part, I’m behind these students all the way.
Just when middle- and high school students are being sold ever more aggressively, by the President no less than their teachers and parents, on the idea that every one of them MUST go to college to be competitive in the global job market, they’re being told to pay more and more for college degrees that are worth less and less.  They’re being sold more educational debt with less assurance of any kind of job security, or that they’ll be able to find any job at all at a salary that will allow them to make loan payments while still maintaining any kind of quality of life.  They work their fannies off in high school in anticipation of a world where they’ll make it by virtue of their hard work–a world that turns out to be a lie.  And when they graduate into an economy stacked against them, they’re blamed for being sheltered and unprepared.  But isn’t everyone sheltered and unprepared, until forced to face real hardship?  Isn’t a 1-year, 32% tuition increase unconscionable enough for the student body to rightfully be up in arms about it?  This is their entire future we’re talking about mortgaging here.
There was so little protest of social injustice when I was in college–there was a small group that regularly protested the racial imbalance of the UGA student body, and a Take Back the Night group, and I’m sure there were small protests of the start of the Iraq war, but nothing that I even remember as an event.  The angriest I remember the student body as a whole was over the perpetual lack of sufficient parking spaces, if you want to talk about entitlement.  So I’m actually proud and hopeful to see so many students taking a serious, unified stand on real problems.
Also, I think kids my age were raised to be uncomplaining, to be rule-followers, and to solve our own problems without making a fuss.  And I don’t want to completely discount those values, which can certainly be adaptive under certain conditions, but I think it went too far, and a lot of my peer group, the early Millennials, wound up too afraid of what any kind of disciplinary record or clash with authority would do to our “permanent record” and chances for college, scholarships, and jobs, that we were too paralyzed with anxiety to seriously challenge unfairness in an organized or visible way.  I know I was way too terrified to risk getting arrested for anything.  Then, at the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I think we felt a sense of futility–Brian Lehrer asked where were the big student movements in protest of those issues, or world poverty, etc.–we knew that storming the dean’s office was not going to stop the war in Iraq.  It just wasn’t.  On the national level, two presidential elections in a row were quite possibly stolen, so it seemed apparent that government was not going to be responsive anymore to the voices of its citizens.  I’m glad to see the kids in California tipping the balance back to where teenagers feel some kind of confidence in their ability to get things changed.
And at the end of the day, if they can’t advocate in their own self-interest, what can they do?  What will they ever be able to accomplish, if they can’t speak up for themselves?  They’re demonstrating that they can, though, and I think it’s perfect preparation for what this country will be going through in the next few years.
{To Be Continued}

March 11, 2010

My generation, part 2

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 10:59 pm by chavisory

During the 2008 primary campaigns, one of the things that swayed me severely away from Hillary Clinton and towards Obama was what I perceived as a really pernicious and mean spirited anti-youth bias in her rhetoric and campaigning.  I tell this anecdote a lot, so forgive me if you’ve heard this particular complaint…In 2006, I was in Juilliard’s stage management internship, and also working opening shifts at Starbucks to make ends meet.  So here’s how my days would go: I woke up at 3:30 AM, caught the 4:00 train downtown, my shift started at 4:45 and ended at 1:00 PM.  I got a venti almond mocha on my way out and went straight to the school, caught a half hour nap at my desk and then finished up the previous day’s paperwork and e-mails before rehearsals started at 4:00 PM.  Got home around 11:00 PM if lucky.  Did it again the next day.

Anyway, on my Starbucks lunch break on one of these days (which occurred around 9:30 or 10:00 AM, when you’ve started a shift before 5:00), I read in the paper something that Clinton had said in her speech to the US Chamber of Commerce:

“We have a lot of kids who don’t know what work means.  They think work is a 4-letter word.”

I had worked a 20-hour day, on the day that she said that.

During a campaign speech at Rhode Island College, she sneered:

“Now, I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.’  Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be.”

It was a blatantly nasty attack both on Obama’s relative youth, and on the hope of his younger supporters that the political environment could ever actually be made better.  Oh, those stupid kids, they think we’ll just sprinkle some fairy dust and it’ll be all better.

It continued, and continues, through the health care debate.  In favor of the individual mandate that was the centerpiece of both Romney and Clinton’s plans, and of the current Senate health insurance bill (I refuse to call it a health care reform bill), the utterly predominant argument is that “young healthy people think they’re invincible and they just won’t buy insurance unless they’re compelled to.” did it here, and even Obama picked up Clinton’s rhetoric in this speech last year on health care reform.
“Now, even if we provide these affordable options, there may be those — especially the young and the healthy — who still want to take the risk and go without coverage….The problem is, such irresponsible behavior costs all the rest of us money.”

It’s one of my biggest disappointments in Obama so far, that he’s adopted this viewpoint with no apparent thought about what he’s actually saying about the young voters who fought for him.
No one in the media questions this; they just say it.  It’s gospel.  I haven’t heard anyone in Congress dare to contradict it.
But it’s false, and it’s bigotry.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, of roughly my age in my work and social circles, is perfectly, glaringly aware of the financial havoc that a medical emergency or prolonged illness could make of their lives.  If they have reasonably affordable insurance through their employer, they’re thankful, and if they don’t, then they’re jealous.   A lot of us don’t have insurance because we’re freelancers and fall into the income black hole wherein individual insurance is totally unaffordable but we make too much to qualify for the state’s low-income plan, and rely on other sources of affordable care (there are several clinics here which offer care on a sliding fee scale, a couple of the major hospitals do, and one clinic which provides basic/preventative care for professional performing artists for free).  But I have never, never, heard anyone in my age bracket say “yeah, you know, I just don’t think I need insurance.  I’m young and healthy.”
We know perfectly well that we’re playing Russian roulette.  We know what the risks are.  But we don’t have a lot of better options.  We are being blamed for being selfish, greedy, and shortsighted, for acting in the only way we can afford to because of economic circumstances that we did not create.
Nobody says that maybe young adults aren’t buying health insurance because decent plans are unaffordable or their employment is insecure.  It must just be that we don’t know what’s good for us.
So, our elected leaders and policy makers think this way about us, and they have no qualms about asserting it, with no fact-based backup, without really knowing anything about the lives we’re trying to lead.  It’s casually acceptable among politicians and the media to bash young adults for political gain–to make these kinds of insulting and baseless statements with no support and no challenge.  What other group would they find it okay to talk about this way?
What are our chances of having our interests fairly represented, when this view of us is taken for granted?
And how did it get this way, from the excitement and high expectations for the “Class of 2000” when we were kindergarteners, to the almost unchallenged assumption that we’re the careless, cheapskate, selfish dimwits depicted in the health care debate?  What happened?
{To be continued}

March 10, 2010

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 1:56 pm by chavisory

So until I read this column yesterday in Newsweek, I actually didn’t even know what my generation was supposed to be called.  I do remember when we were supposed to be Generation Y, but for what I think are obvious reasons, it didn’t really stick with us.  It didn’t mean anything we could connect to; all it said was that we had no better identity than whatever came after Generation X.  A couple times I saw it represented as Generation Why, which I did like a lot, but it never caught on.  Having never felt particularly connected or included or identified with people my own age anyway, I quit thinking about it eventually.  I could never look at other people of my own generation and see myself, my concerns, my joys, reflected.  (Reviving Ophelia was published when I was a teenager, and I read it but it meant nothing to me.  Those girls didn’t have anything to do with me.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have problems, but mine seemed completely lost on the supposed experts.  It was like reading a very interesting treatise on a completely alien species.)  At this point, we seem to have a spirit of nostalgia for all the same childhood TV shows, movies, toys, and school experiences, but beyond that, it’s hard to see that we have a particularly coherent value system or collective unconscious.

Or is it maybe just a retrospective illusion that any American generation has had that much cohesion?

But evidently the name that’s settled on us now is “the millennials.”  It still doesn’t have much ring for me, but I guess it’s better than Generation Y.

Samuelson explores here the ways in which the idea of a “generation gap” or that of distinct generations with beliefs and perceptions unique to their experiences is, and isn’t, useful for tracing political and cultural change, and the ways in which ours, and our relationship with our government, could be adversely affected by this economic downturn far into the future.

Here’s the thing about generations, though: they never get to name or define themselves.  Their title and the supposed dominant cultural gestalt is largely determined by the generations who write history later.  Ours, the “millennials,” seems fairly unique in that there’s been so much presumption and supposition about what our generation means, what we’re like, ever since we were small children, by our elders, rather than in retrospect.  And it feels unfair, to have the objects of so much anxiety for the entirety of the time we were growing up.

I think we might just be the most prematurely judged generation in American history, and that we may suffer uniquely, especially in the aftermath of the current recession, for the misjudgment and misperception of our elders.

{To Be Continued}

February 22, 2010

The New York Times chooses bad poster children. Again.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 5:31 am by chavisory

Has anyone else noticed this tendency?  The Times could be doing some really valuable on-the-ground reporting of the effects of the recession on everyday individual Americans who, despite working hard and doing everything right have found their lives, careers, health, and security unraveled by economic forces far beyond their control.  But their reporters keep choosing to highlight really bad poster children.  (I’m sure many people remember these two.)

I’m about to walk a really, really fine line of victim-blaming and mentally distinguishing the “deserving” from “undeserving” poor here.  I know that.

Sunday’s article, “The New Poor: Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs,” about the mal-adaptability of our social safety net to long-term, intractable unemployment, profiles Jean Eisen, out of work for two years now.  Her unemployment insurance extension just ran out for the second time.  She’s doing without medication, getting groceries from the food pantry, and willing to do just about any job she’s able to do, no matter how menial.  The 6-month unemployment rate of women in her age group has doubled since the early 1980’s, according to the article.

My heart was with her, until this line: “She and her husband now settle their bills with only his $1,595 monthly disability check. The rent on their apartment is $1,380.”

Okay.  I don’t know what cost of living is like in southern California, but there are 1-bedroom apartments cheaper than that in NYC.  And $1,595 is more than I usually make per month working.  And up until recently, when the latest extension expired, she was also getting $702 biweekly from unemployment.  I understand it takes money to move, plus deposit and first month’s rent, but seriously?  It sounds like these people showed no forethought whatsoever much, much earlier in their unemployment, when they would’ve still had the cash to move to a cheaper apartment so as not to strain their savings with $1,400 rent.

And then:

After a trip to the food bank, she says “I’ve got 10 bags of pinto beans.  And I have no clue how to cook a pinto bean.”


All of which helps explain why Ms. Eisen — who has never before struggled to find work — feels a familiar pain each time she scans job listings on her computer: There are positions in health care, most requiring experience she lacks. Office jobs demand familiarity with software she has never used.

She has no idea how to cook a pinto bean?  Okay, knowing how to cook beans isn’t probably going to get her off unemployment, but…she doesn’t have the skills, or the mental initiative, to get out a cookbook and look it up?  She’s been out of work for two years and hasn’t tried to learn some of the computer or accounting skills that office jobs ask for?

I’m not overlooking or denying the import of the facts here that there are 6 applicants for every single job available in this country, that manufacturing jobs that used to pay enough to raise a family on have disappeared overseas, that high school and even college degrees used to mean a whole lot more than they do now, that medical costs are crushing, that age discrimination is a big problem for older women especially, that something is very, very wrong when Ms. Eisen could earn $13.25 per hour, plus bonus and benefits, with a high school diploma in the 1980’s, and in 2010, I can earn the about the same ($14.50), LESS after inflation actually, on a good day, without any benefits, with two college degrees and a prestigious internship under my belt.  I’m not saying there aren’t deep and nefarious economic forces at work here beyond any of our individual influence, or that people aren’t suffering and legitimately afraid of homelessness who worked hard their whole lives, saved, lived within their means, didn’t buy homes they couldn’t afford, and have done everything rational to cut back on expenses and still find themselves driven to the brink.  I’m confused at the Times’ seeming selective inability to find them.  (Because they did, several weeks ago, for an article on the 6 million Americans now living on no income other than food stamps.)

But doesn’t it say something about why this woman can’t find a job that she’s not mentally self-reliant or literate enough to look up the instructions for cooking beans, or try to pick up some computer skills in two years of unemployment?

And even at that, I don’t really blame her.

Our entire educational system encourages passivity and obedience for the majority of students, and blatantly discourages or even punishes inventiveness, independence of thought, critical thinking, high literacy, passion for any subject, skill, or craft that doesn’t fall under the school system’s purview, excellence at anything for its own sake, and an attention span of more than 50 minutes.  The overriding lesson is that the way to success, security, and financial comfort is to “work hard,” get good grades, and follow the rules.  And it’s a big fat lie.  Ms. Eisen probably has gone through life more or less doing what she was told.  Doing what she thought she was supposed to.  And it’s left her so helpless that she can’t figure out by herself how to cook a pound of beans, let alone pull through a major economic downturn intact.

This is something we are going to have to change about the way we educate kids if we are ever to fix our economy in a sustainable way.  And I never, ever hear it talked about in any speeches or pleas for education reform.

And secondly, we’ve got to stop worshipping and fetishizing “middle class” status.  What is it, what’s magical about it?  As far as I can see, it consists of the ability to live in the suburbs and maintain a lot of stuff that people don’t actually need to live well.  As far as I can tell, the Eisens are in the trouble they are now largely because they maintained their middle class life long after they couldn’t really afford it.  People don’t think about what they need; they just consume.  We as a society need to stop shaming the non-middle class, and stop being afraid to live with less.  Or rather, I think it’s time we demand more social benefits—affordable college, healthcare, public transit and healthy environment—and learn how to live well without more superfluous material ones.

And the Times is, quite unintentionally I’m sure, trivializing the real severity of the economic situation for a lot of people right now by choosing as its emblematic economic victims people who couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag in any kind of hardship.

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