Every generation finds, eventually, a mode of expression that suits it. Cavemen drew lines on their cave walls. Sixties kids marched. My generation, we Gchat, a million tiny windows blinking orange with hopes and dreams and YouTube links, with five-year plans and lunch plans. So as I began to search for a single phrase that could, preposterously, describe our entire cohort, post-crash, I did what I always do in moments of crisis. I Gchatted my 24-year-old sister Clare, who happens to be living back at home with our parents while she looks for a job:
(10:24 p.m.) CLARE: how about they just call us SAA
CLARE: we need a D
to make it really good
(10:26) can i send you a cover letter right quick?
our generation is:
fame and glory hungry
weirdly apathetic when it comes to things outside of the internet
(10:32) ME: delayed is not our fault
CLARE: ok, you know what i always think about when i think of our generation? i read the david brooks book, “the social animal” and while it was only mediocre, he had this one really great bit that really stuck with me—the Greek ideal of “thumos”, which is the lust not for money or success (in the conventional sense) but the lust for glory
we want glory through our ideas-we want to know we matter
(10:33) the cold truth is that not all of us are brilliant
we are not all big thinkers. Not everyone’s TED talks will change the world
some of us will just dissipate into the ether
(10:34) but it is the digital connectivity, that proximity to these people, that makes us think that perhaps we will succeed as well
(10:35) ok, i’m done
(10:36) no i’m not
here’s why the recession is so devastating to us
we grew up, all the way through college, with everything seeming so ripe and possible
(10:37) we had a PC education—people tried to hide from us as long as possible that not everyone is equal
we were told we all have a fair chance of making it
that’s just not so
and we’re starting to realize that
(10:39) are you even listening to me anymore?
(10:41) ME: hi sorry
(10:42) i was writing an email
i am filing your comments
in my file.
(10:43) i think
your cover letter is good!
CLARE: i thought it was ok
(10:47) but I am, to be honest, expecting a rejection.
I know this might read as very woe-is-us, but these are the facts: Nearly 14 percent of college graduates from the classes of 2006 through 2010 can’t find full-time work, and overall just 55.3 percent of people ages 16 to 29 have jobs. That’s the lowest percentage since World War II, as you might have heard an Occupy Wall Street protester point out. (Not coincidentally, one in five young adults now lives below the poverty line.) Almost a quarter more people ages 25 to 34—in other words, people who should be a few years into their independent lives—are living with their parents than at the beginning of the recession.
Being young is supposed to mean you have the luxury of time. But in hard times, a few fallow years can become a lifetime drag on what you earn, sort of the opposite of compound interest. Because the average person grabs 70 percent of their total pay bumps during their first ten years in the workforce, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, having stagnant or nonexistent wages during that period means you hit that springboard at a crawl. Economist Lisa Kahn explained to The Atlantic in 2010 that those who graduate into a recession are still earning an average of 10 percent less nearly two decades into their careers. In hard, paycheck-shrinking numbers, the salary lost over that stretch totals around $100,000. That works out to $490 or so less a month, money that could go, say, toward repaying student loans, which for the class of 2009 average $24,000. Those student loans (the responsible borrowing option!) have reportedly passed credit cards as the nation’s largest source of debt. This is not just a rotten moment to be young. It’s a putrid, stinking, several-months-old-stringy-goat-meat moment to be young.
Earlier generations have weathered recessions, of course; this stall we’re in has the look of something nastier. Social Security and Medicare are going to be diminished, at best. Hours worked are up even as hiring staggers along: Blood from a stone looks to be the normal order of things “going forward,” to borrow the business-speak. Economists are warning that even when the economy recuperates, full employment will be lower and growth will be slower—a sad little rhyme that adds up to something decidedly unpoetic. A majority of Americans say, for the first time ever, that this generation will not be better off than its parents.