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Generation pessimism

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FEBRUARY 15, 2013

A few months before its print edition ceased to be, Newsweek joined ranks with every other major national news magazine in existence and published a long story on the state of 20-somethings. The July story is headlined with a question: “Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?”

Except it isn’t really a question at all. Above the headline, massive black letters boom the essay’s answer. “Generation Screwed,” the thick strokes declare.  “How has this generation been screwed?” author Joel Kotkin begins. “Let’s count the ways …”

Kotkin tells a story so relatable that it feels almost banal: the tale of 20-somethings coming of age in a time of terrible economic recession and subsequently becoming immensely un- and underemployed and saddled with college degrees that cost more but are worth less than ever before.  Kotkin’s piece feels so familiar because the only thing people like writing about more than the tragedy of 20-somethings is writing about Girls (and that’s the same thing.)

If you believe the discourse that this article is grounded in, our job prospects are nearly nil, we are destined to move back home, we will have a string of meaningless relationships utterly devoid of courtship and, in the end, we might even ruin everything. “Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” The New York Times Magazine lamented concisely in the subhead of its popular article on the subject from 2010.

These are dreary predictions. But what I find even more concerning than the actual statistics is that whether or not we’re screwed isn’t actually posed as a question — we’re being told, over and over again, that we are doomed to fail, that the American Dream will never be ours. What I am most concerned about is not the desolate post-grad world we may very well be marching resolutely toward but the way that our awareness of that world might be changing us; I worry about what it will mean to be not only the Screwed Generation but the pessimistic one.

I worry that our faith in education, so long seen as stepping stone toward opportunity, will change irrevocably.  My dad likes to tell me about how much he loved college, how he spent more than seven years at Ohio State getting his bachelor’s degree and then working toward a doctorate he never ended up finishing. I worry that, beyond making it financially impossible, the current cost of higher education relative to average wages  makes the attitude of study for the sake of study seem frivolous, and that’s sad.

I worry about the way our policy reinforces that same kind of pessimism, as in proposals that advocate varying tuition rates based on how lucrative a major is predicted to be and the clear abandonment of the humanist idea of education that implies. I worry about the way that state divestment from higher education tells us that the state is decreasingly interested in our development, that it too has given up on us.

In a piece for The New Yorker, Nathan Heller analyzes a report by Samantha and Robin Marantz Henig on middle-class Millennials finding that, unlike past generations of young people, our generation seems hesitant to reimagine what he calls “a new kind of life.”

“That in itself is a swerve from the past,” Heller writes. “Nearly every twentysomething generation of at least the past half century has created a new mainstream aspirational model … (this) the generation’s dreams seem not to be wholly their own.”

I’ve written before about my concern that our generation might be fonder of co-opting stereotypically radical ideas from the past as a means to move forward than creating our own mechanisms of progress. I worry about what that means for our world.

But most of all, I worry about the way that pessimism is creeping into our personal decision-making processes — into the deep places in our minds. I worry that my friends, even those who have been privileged with an education at the very best public university in the world, won’t go after the big goals because they know the stats, they know how unlikely it is that they’ll have the kind of lives they want.

According to a Rutgers study cited in the “Screwed Generation” article, only 14 percent of recent high school graduates think they’ll be more financially successful than their parents. They believe the critics; I worry that I do too.

I’m worried because if we believe that we are screwed, Newsweek’s headline need not even pretend to be a question — its declarative nature will be justified, its prediction fulfilled.

“No hope for a better tomorrow,” one of its photo headlines reads.

I refuse to believe that. I refuse to abandon the kind of optimism that probably only comes with the naivete of being young. While a lofty faith in the future may no longer be feasible,  I think it makes even less sense to assume failure, because that’s an assumption that never fails.

Contact Sarah Burns at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @_SBurns.

FEBRUARY 15, 2013