As a college professor, I find myself frequently thinking about the Occupy movement. Though the absolute numbers of participants are not large, it is clear that the general sentiment of disillusionment and anger has tendrils which spread into the general population of young people. I would like to explore the question of whether they have a point and how we should think about it.
Getting the Bill for the Six Parties Ahead of You
There are many good reasons for the young to be frustrated. First, they are coming to adulthood at a time when older generations have taken a course of action that damaged their own prospects. Large corporations have been severely hindered by old agreements to provide for workers after retirement. The CEO of General Motors, prior to his dismissal, complained that he felt he was running a health insurance company rather than a car company. Many of the great old corporations have struggled against massive legacy costs of this type. Who gained? The old management gained because they were able to reduce wages in exchange for costs they could put off well into the future. The old workers gained because they have secured a right to benefits which run for decades beyond their last day of labor. Old labor gained. Old management gained. Who is left with the check? Later generations must pay the bill in terms of reduced competitive capability for the enterprises and less money to invest on growth. Resources which flow to those who ran things decades ago are unavailable to the rising cohort. The more pensions, the more health insurance legacies, the less which can be used for building strong companies today. Labor and management conspired to make the future pay.
Our elected officials have done the same thing, ultimately. We have financed government at a level beyond our willingness to pay for it and thus have racked up debt which grows prodigiously. The young realize that while entitlement after entitlement accrued to their elders, they will be expected to pay for those programs while suffering great pessimism over whether they will ever enjoy the fruits of them. Just as with corporations, the government officials and their constituents (the management and labor, so to speak) have conspired to postpone costs into the future. The young are supposed to look hopefully into the future. But how can they do so when it has been loaded with debt like some ill-fated corporate spin-off?
The Psychological Terror of Being Young
One of the great difficulties of being a young person just out of college like many of the Occupy protesters is that one’s personal future is very much in doubt. Right up until the end of college, the young person has been on an escalator that is going somewhere. Preschool to kindergarten to elementary school to middle school to high school and then to college. It is all easy to understand and the next steps are clear. But what to do at the end of the escalator? There are some programs which seem to feed people right along into another series of escalators, such as teaching, nursing, medical school, maybe accounting, but many others lead to a more open future with widely variable outcomes. What of the English major or the student of history who does not go into graduate study? What does an art major do? How about the dramatic pupil, the communication arts scholar? For these students, there is no continuing escalator.
When I got out of college in 1992, I could not simply enter an academy of government service and get an assignment. Interestingly, I tried to do something like that. I obtained a master’s degree in public administration with the sole goal of getting into the Presidential Management Internship which would feed me right into a government agency. Despite being at the top of my class, I did not get the appointment. The uncertainty of my future terrified me. I spent the next several years of my life trying to figure out what to do and where to go. I earned a law degree and a Ph.D. Only then did I find my own path. During those years of confusion and wilderness, how I envied those with sure paths. I raged at the way my own life circumstances had left me without the kind of parental connections or other favorable breaks which could start me in a career. I am sure that many young people in the Occupy movement share those feelings.
I went through all of that in the era of relatively inexpensive tuition. Thanks to scholarships and help from the parents (mainly at the undergrad level), I escaped with very little debt. For the average Occupy protester, student debt is a very substantial part of the grievance.
Being Prepared for Reality
There is an indictment to be delivered on those of us in the college game. Generally speaking, we don’t prepare students mentally for the end of the escalator. We need to impress upon them that getting the credential of a bachelor’s degree and completing a program of study is just the base level in the process of getting a job. Very few people come out of college ready to do the jobs they plan to get. College does not train most students for a job in the way a trade school might. Instead, college signals employers that a particular student has a degree of competence, can receive and complete assignments, and is used to showing up at a given place at a given time in some kind of routine way. The college program is a foundation. But during college, the student needs to be looking well beyond just passing classes.
Throughout, a young person should be thinking in the manner of the old Evangelism Explosion which queried individuals as to what they would say when God asked them, “Why should I let you in my heaven?” Except, in our scenario, the question from the employer is, “Why should I give you a job with my company?” If your only answer is that you have completed a course of study at a university and have no experience or no special skill to offer, then you are not a very attractive candidate. You need to have completed your course of study AND know how to write really well AND be able to analyze problems AND come up with good solutions AND have some basic quantitative skills AND be computer literate AND have cultivated habits of lifetime learning AND have reasonably good social skills AND be opportunistic about finding work and delivering results.
Until a young person starts to understand just how steep the wall is that they face before they become attractive to an employer, they will mostly be bewildered as to why things aren’t working out. But think about it from the employer’s side of things. They can either pay you a salary or spend that money on facilities, technology, profit for investors, making a product better for customers, or any number of other items which may be more attractive than hiring an inexperienced young person. Being a warm body with a nice credential doesn’t work well unless the economy is smoking hot, as with the dot.com boom.
And, by the way, the economy is not smoking hot, nor does it show signs of being smoking hot any time in the near future. As to why, please see the first section on getting the bill for the six parties ahead of you.
The solution to the fiscal problem is not to make sure that the government increases its budget to spend a lot more on young people to go along with the very large (and unsustainable) amount we spend on older people. Rather, the solution is to reverse the bad habits. Corporations have been hard at work for years getting younger employees on the 401k train rather than on pensions. Governments will need to do the same thing. Pensions are not a sustainable model for a population like ours that barely replaces itself. Neither do they make much sense when people may live as many decades after working as they spent working.
The solution to the problem of being young and uncertain is to do a better job of preparing young people for the end of the escalator. The old join a corporation and spend forty years there and then get a pension model is finished. Whoever embraces it will be defeated economically by those who do not. Everyone must be an entrepreneur of their own skills and abilities. If you aren’t prepared to do that, then find one of the few remaining escalators left which run all the way to retirement.