Then there is my friend Sam (not his real name, because he felt that if I used his real name, he’d truly be unemployable). In high school, Sam was the sports captain who set all the curves in calculus. I used to call him up the night before physics tests to figure out what I should know. Sam went to the best college he got into, for which he took out $50,000 in loans. He signed up for some abstract-math courses, was cowed by classmates who worked theorems for kicks, and majored in poetry writing rather than fall short in the subject he’d built so much of his identity on. After graduating, he took a job as a woodworker’s apprentice, not the expected outcome for a grade-grubbing gunner, but also not all that unusual back in the days before every decision about which major to sign up for or job to take started to feel make-or-break. One thing about being the boomers’ heirs growing up in boom times was that it used to be okay to take a life-enriching sabbatical. There was no reason to think you wouldn’t eventually be able to get back on track.
Sam found out that woodworking turned out to be mostly vacuuming up wood chips, and so after a few months, he moved on to a series of other gigs, none of them exactly a career. When he finally got sick of bouncing around in his broken-down $200 car and living with his parents—who kept pressuring him to revisit his math-and-science aptitude—he got himself a $25,000 bank loan, which he used to cover expenses while enrolled in continuing-ed classes in engineering at one of the U.C. schools. He ran out of money pretty quickly. He then found a job working in urban education, but was laid off after a year and a half. “That was the point in my life where I was like, I need to get a career, I need to make that move,” he told me over the phone, in the mellowed-out East Bay patois that had crept into his voice since I last spoke with him. These days, he’s going to networking events and desperately applying for jobs in the tech world, hopeful that landing something very entry-level will put him back on a navigable route to success. He’s had creditors calling him at all hours. He is rather earnestly worried that he might end up on the street. His brothers are managing to stand on their own feet, and he can’t bear to move back home.
“I have a lot of regret about going to college,” Sam, the person in my high-school class who’d been most obsessed with getting into a good college, now says. “If I could go back again, I think I’d try … not going to college”—our generation’s ultimate blasphemy.
Sam blames himself for his predicament, not the economy, mostly. But other people in similar straits are coming to see their personal hardships as the product of broad inequalities. How many young people will put themselves into that category is a big test for Occupy Wall Street. One of its advocates created a Tumblr, “We Are the 99 Percent,” to collect accounts of being screwed by the recession. The posts from twentysomethings take stories that sound something like Lael’s—“I worked hard (40 hours a week during most of my education), for what? Tell me what I need to do to get ahead, because I did everything right!”—and make them a call to arms.
The unions, we know, are heeding that call, but a broader youth movement has yet to materialize.* The Obama 2008 campaign was the high-water mark for twentysomething political involvement. The activism it entailed felt like work—not a turnoff for us. Dialing your way through spreadsheets of get-out-the-vote phone numbers is something you can add to a résumé; getting escorted off the Brooklyn Bridge in those plastic handcuffs is not. But we’re done with that kind of engagement, for now: While this is by some measures the most politically progressive generation ever, young people have never been more disillusioned, as a group, about their ability to bring about meaningful change through the electoral process.
*This article has been updated from its original version. Yaphet Murphy is 38 years old, not 28, the age he had given to the author and a fact-checker. Because that puts him outside the focus of the essay, a paragraph describing his struggle to find work has been removed.